Moore proves herself the rare critic who’s as satisfying to read on the volumes you haven’t heard of as on the ones you have. (Maybe the 'autobiographical' book reviewer is only ever reviewing one book, its subject her own powers of expressivity.) The minute attention Moore pays to what were, at the time of writing, up-and-coming authors—Matthew Klam, Joan Silber—pleads their interestingness; an essay on Silber, from 2005, borrows the passionate exhaustiveness of a TV recap ... her reviews persistently worry the distinction between the human being and his or her work ... Moore-as-essayist scans much as Moore-the-fiction-writer does: as lightly melancholy, with a compensatory inclination to amuse both herself and us ... Still other passages sailed beyond me ... Still, Moore is one of our best documentarians of everyday amazement.
There’s some scrapbook-like bloat. The world would have continued, for example, without the review, written for Moore’s college literary magazine, of Nora Ephron’s Heartburn ... More significantly, although Moore is hardly a pushover, there’s less crack in her whip than some readers (well, me) might like ... In her reviews of fiction (by Margaret Atwood, Joan Silber, Bobbie Ann Mason, Philip Roth, Stanley Elkin and Richard Ford, among many others), she has great feelers ... Had she wanted, Moore could have had an important career as a theater or television critic ... When writing teachers pass this book to their students, the title See What Can Be Done will be read as a simple command.
Moore rarely condescends to her subject except when she is writing in a spirit of sophisticated disgust about politics ... She is generous, sometimes to a fault ... Her voice throughout is clear and informed, easily amused, psychologically nuanced and polished without being brocaded ... As might be expected from a stylist as accomplished as Moore, her essays about other writers are intriguing even when the book in question is minor or has been eclipsed by the passage of time — or when you don’t agree with her assessment ... If I have reservations about See What Can Be Done, they have mostly to do with the fact that the collection seems a bit overstuffed ... That said ... I found myself nestling into the book the way one does with the most gripping of novels...curious to read the next essay.
As in her fiction—for which the vast majority of readers know her—Moore’s one-liners are tart, but never acid ... She strikes the reader as someone who could silence a room with a few well-placed glances; the most withering thing she will say about the most ridiculous of passages is that it 'gives one pause.' I was three-quarters of the way through this book before I realized—shocked, and then shocked at my shock—that it contains no hatchet jobs. See What Can Be Done is...studded, here and there, with gem-dense personal essay ... Moore reveals herself, in her criticism, to be the kind of reader every writer both longs for and fears. She seems to be incapable of missing a trick, and paces through novels like a casino manager surveilling the floor, with a sixth sense for chip hustlers and baloney dice ... You may end See What Can Be Done feeling that you have come to the end of a love song...or perhaps to accept what you cannot know.
She is an exacting writer but never a conceited one ... Moore is an undoctrinaire feminist with a keen, flexible, unheated take on women ... gets off to collar-grabbing starts ... Her political commentary is shrewd ... Lorrie Moore is such a writer that you want to collect her words as a gardener would rain in a water-butt.
Those who have not yet discovered her might best begin with the fiction and save this collection for later, not because it doesn’t merit attention but because Moore’s incisive, often mordant yet exhilarating pieces illuminate the trajectory of a literary artist’s aesthetic evolution, and enhance an understanding of her fiction. They give us a cumulative sense of how the frank, savvy, tragicomic sensibility so evident in her stories and novels reverberates in the wider context ... Extended personal forays are rare, however, and in these pieces Moore’s particular frankness emerges chiefly (and deliciously) in parenthetical asides or digressive observations when she is focused on the work of others ... I had enjoyed many of the essays in this collection in the journals in which they first appeared but was struck, on rereading, not only by Moore’s intelligence and wit, and by the syntactical and verbal satisfactions of her prose, but by the fundamental generosity of her critical spirit. Moore’s astringency always enlivens her observations, but rarely her assessments, even when critical. In print, at least, she is a wit without malice.
A generous reader of other writers, Moore is always smart, never snooty, and as in her novels and short stories, there’s a bold streak of humor ... What’s interesting here is not just the reviews themselves but Moore’s reasons for undertaking them in the first place, an endeavour she sees as 'jury duty,' and 'a difficult but obligatory citizenship.' She makes a compelling contribution to the argument for writers to act as critic. She is also a champion of deceptive simplicity, and she understands the power of brevity ... Whether she’s writing about current affairs or literature, or indeed her own honeymoon, Lorrie Moore’s essays are brilliantly written, brimming with energy, and never for a moment dull. Brought together in a collection, they form a great doll’s house of a book, offering a glimpse through tiny windows into other worlds, and as such they are undiminished by the passage of time.
Moore writes well on politics, as well as film and television, music and theater; her essay on a landmark 2007 production of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd – sharply observed and gorgeously written – is the best among scores of reflections on this production. Including my own ... But Moore is at her best when she writes about other writers – with generosity but also candor, of a sort that’s often in short supply these days whenever fiction writers review each other ... Moore is the sort of feminist who refuses to be pigeonholed; she’s too expansive for that.
What sustains overall this group of essays and commentary is a continuous critical spirit that stays in touch with life. Writing of the interlinked short stories in Joan Silber’s Ideas of Heaven, Ms. Moore notes that everyone in them 'speaks in the same lively, funny, intelligent voice: the voice of the book'—a judgment that applies equally to the disparate items in See What Can Be Done.
These essays define Moore (Bark, 2014) as a critic of great candor and fairness, and a great champion of female writers ... her incisive readings are a must for budding authors ... Moore, cogent, distinctive, and entertaining, reiterates what great art can do.
As Moore reviews books, TV, politics and her own life, she slams into her subjects, lands on her stories. She cuts into the souls of other artists and makes noise. She fearlessly tells the truth about hard things ... Moore approaches writing as a way of ruthlessly reaching toward the reader. You hope that when you reach back you won’t pull away with bloody fingers.
A successful freelancer must be curious about a great many things, and this collection, which draws on material from the past three and a half decades, is a testament to the breadth of Moore’s intellect ... What unifies these pieces – what must galvanize any such collection – is the author’s voice, a prevailing sensibility. Moore’s manner of looking at the world, memorably described by Joyce Carol Oates in reviewing Moore’s fiction, equally applies to her nonfiction work: 'a unique combination of wit, caustic insight, sympathy for the pathos of her characters’ lives, and that peculiar sort of melancholy attributable to time too long spent in the northern Midwest where late-afternoon snow acquires a spectral blue tinge.'
What is most impressive is her capacity to give the work under review a life of its own. She makes even those books I recall not much enjoying sound fresh and remarkable ... The book has something wise or funny on almost every page, and one only wishes that the publishers had thrown the cat a goldfish and included an index.
Reviewing Claudia Roth Pierpont’s Passionate Minds, Moore...offered generous praise for the collection of literary profiles: 'with its unintimidated questions and explorations,' the book, she wrote, 'is provocative and bracing, a wizard’s mix of innocence and fire.' Much the same can be said of these articles, reviews, bits of memoir, and commentaries ... Deft, graceful essays from a sharply incisive writer.
Throughout, her chief virtue as a critic is shown to be a sympathetic, generous eye, which enables Moore to reveal the unique appeal of any given work ... this book provides ample insight into Moore’s inner life; it is certainly a boon to any lover of smart cultural criticism.