Welcome to Secrets of the Book Critics, in which books journalists from around the US and beyond share their thoughts on beloved classics, overlooked recent gems, misconceptions about the industry, and the changing nature of literary criticism in the age of social media. Each week we’ll spotlight a critic, bringing you behind the curtain of publications both national and regional, large and small.
This week we spoke to NBCC Award-winning critic, poet, and essayist, William Logan.
Book Marks: What classic book would you love to have reviewed when it was first published?
William Logan: Moby-Dick. Critics are rarely wrong when they trash books that later become classics. The reviewers of Lyrical Ballads, Leaves of Grass, and The Waste Land all knew exactly what the poets were doing and described it in expressive and intimate terms—they just didn’t think it was poetry. Critics should have seen what Melville, the greatest (and perhaps most poetical) writer of English prose, was about when he went off the leash in Moby-Dick. A later critic might imagine he could have done better. As Hemingway said, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
BM: What unheralded book from the past year would you like to give a shout-out to?
WL: Claudia Emerson’s Claude Before Time and Space, a beautiful book by a poet who died too soon. If I’d wanted to be unethical, I’d have chosen one of the few books I’m not allowed to review, Debora Greger’s In Darwin’s Room. Ms. Greger and I have for some decades enjoyed what is called a romantic relationship.
BM: What is the greatest misconception about book critics and criticism?
WL: That critics write negative reviews because they’re jealous. They write because they’re not jealous.
BM: How has book criticism changed in the age of social media?
WL: For the worse. For the better.
BM: What critic working today do you most enjoy reading?
WL: Samuel Johnson. He’s still working, so far as I can tell.
William Logan’s most recent books are Rift of Light (poems, Penguin) and Dickinson’s Nerves, Frost’s Woods (essays, Columbia University Press). He has received the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism, the Aiken Taylor Award in Modern American Poetry, and the inaugural Randall Jarrell Award in Poetry Criticism. Logan writes most frequently for the New York Times Books Review, the New Criterion, and Parnassus. He teaches at the University of Florida.