Why are we doing this—any of this? Reading books, writing books, reading books about books, writing books about books, and here, now, writing and reading reviews of books about books? Presumably, we write and read (and read about writing, and write about reading) because we take these various permutations on the literary endeavor to stand in some meaningful relationship to life. Either literature distills life and concentrates it in a purer, more vital form (“Nothing is more human than a book,” Marilynne Robinson remarked in an interview with The Paris Review); or literature mirrors life and thereby illuminates it; or literature teaches us, by way of example, how to live. The point is that literature enlivens. If not, why write? Why read? Why bother?
In two recent essay collections, the British literary critic, novelist, and translator Tim Parks suggests that perhaps we shouldn’t bother. “It’s time to rethink everything,” he stresses in the introduction to Where I’m Reading From, a series of short reflections published by New York Review Books last spring. “Most book talk is formulaic and has been for decades,” he continues. “Your average review offers a quick value judgment summed up in one-to-five stars at the top of the column. Why read on?” This is a good question—and the answer, I think, is that the best criticism is literature in its own right. (And like any good narrative architect, the best reviewers know to withhold their evaluative conclusions in hopes of prolonging suspense.) In Parks’s case, we read on because his is a worthy and important project. It is refreshing to see a critic attempt to systematically clarify his foundational values, rather than reinventing his commitments anew with each review.
With Life and Work, we have a chance to see Parks’s much-flaunted principles in action. The book unites essays first published in this magazine, The New York Review of Books, and the London Review of Books, and it treats authors spanning centuries and continents: Parks begins locally, with his countrymen Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy, and ends globally, with the unlikely likes of E.L. James and Stieg Larsson. He arrives at this destination by way of Geoff Dyer, Haruki Murakami, J.M. Coetzee, Philip Roth, and sundry others.
Diverse as his subjects may be, Parks’s quirks and quibbles are consistent to the point of redundancy. He is abidingly obsessed with the pernicious effects of globalization on local literary traditions, and abidingly critical of homogeneous, stylistically neutered “world literature.” “What seems doomed to disappear,” he frets, “is the kind of work that revels in the subtle nuances of its own language and literary culture.” How odd, then, that he read seven of the 20 authors surveyed in Life and Work in translation, and that four of the remaining English-speaking authors hail from avowedly non-British contexts. It is difficult to think of an author more quintessentially American than Roth, or more staunchly South African than Coetzee, yet Parks assesses both authors in haughtily authoritative tones.