The Essay and the Critic

December 15, 2016

book-reviewUnlike our friends in fiction and poetry, nonfiction can feel a bit diffuse in the publishing world at times. There aren’t many presses dedicated to our genre, and those that do publish us tend to scatter us among other genres, or by subject (rare is the bookstore, for instance, that might shelve Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me in the same section). Essays and memoirs and cultural criticism, biographies and nature writing—nonfiction tends to spill into new places.

That’s one of several reasons good criticism of nonfiction is so vital. Serious readers of the genre need a way to place ourselves in context, both contemporary and historical, and to think of our work alongside writers engaged in similar pursuits. It’s not that reviews of nonfiction books are rare. Rather, it’s that a book of poetry or fiction might be reviewed by its literary merits, treated as art with its craft carefully studied. Reviews of nonfiction, in contrast, are likely to summarize topic while giving scant (if any) attention to literary qualities, or the philosophical questions of self, society, and world that often seem most urgent to writers.

Within the academy and within the publishing world at large, nonfiction is at a peculiar point in its long history. It’s being defined and reified, reconceived and undone, by every writer laying claim to “essay,” to “memoir.” Its movement into the future is in fact, a plurality of movements, each along unique vectors of truth, of the political, of form. Might the genre go the way of fiction and poetry, tied to Euro-American conventions, to the histories of the already canonized? Might it stretch to further flexibility, insistent of its own capaciousness, its line breaks, and hybridized roots? The best way to guess the course of our genre’s future is to pay careful attention to its present. It’s here and now. To look not only at who is publishing what but further, at what one writer thinks of another.    

And then, of course, there’s the simple fact that criticism is itself nonfiction. That a review, at its best, is an essay.

For these reasons, we’re amping up our reviews coverage at Punctuate. In coming months, look to our website for recent and forthcoming books of interesting nonfiction from small presses and larger publishers alike. We’re eager to nurture something like a home for the serious reader of nonfiction who wants to know what and who to read next. If you’re an author or publisher, we’d love to know what’s coming down the line from you as well—just email our Reviews Editor to get more information.

It’s good that nonfiction spills over. It’s good that our genre is capacious, contradictory, and always growing. Now let’s celebrate it by paying attention to where it might go next.

T Clutch Fleischmann, Reviews Editor

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