Cover image for See what can be done : essays, criticism, and commentary / Lorrie Moore.
Title:
See what can be done : essays, criticism, and commentary / Lorrie Moore.
ISBN:
9780385691314
Publication Information:
[Toronto] : Bond Street Books, [2018]
Physical Description:
xix, 407 pages ; 25 cm
Contents:
Nora Ephron's Heartburn (1983) -- Kurt Vonnegut's Galápagos (1985) -- Malcolm Bradbury's Cuts (1987) -- Anaïs Nin, Marilyn Monroe (1987) -- John Cheever (1988) -- Bobbie Ann Mason's Love Life (1989) -- V.S. Pritchett's A Careless Widow (1989) -- Stanley Elkin's The MacGuffin (1991) -- Don DeLillo's Mao II (1991) -- Election Day 1992: Voters in Wonderland (1992) -- Charles Baxter's Shadow Play (1993) -- Margaret Atwood's The Robber Bride (1993) -- On Writing (1994) -- Amos Oz (1996) -- Christmas for Everyone (1997) -- Starr-Clinton-Lewinsky (1998) -- Ann Beattie's New and Selected Stories (1998) -- JonBenét Ramsey by Lawrence Schiller (1999) -- Joyce Carol Oates's Broke Heart Blues (1999) -- Dawn Powell (1999) -- Best Love Song of the Millennium (1999) -- Titanic (2000) -- Claudia Roth Pierpont's Passionate Minds (2000) -- Philip Roth's The Human Stain (2000) -- Matthew Klam's Sam the Cat (2000) -- Legal Aide: My First Job (2001) -- Frederic Cassidy (2001) -- Alice Munro's Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2002) -- Edna St. Vincent Millay (2002) -- Darryl Pinckney and Caryl Phillips (2002) -- Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake (2003) -- John Updike's The Early Stories (2003) -- Nicholson Baker's Checkpoint (2004) -- Alice Munro's Runaway (2004) -- Joan Silber (2005) -- Eudora Welty (2006) -- Alice Munro's The Moons of Jupiter (2006) -- Shakespeare: The Modern Elizabethan (2006) -- One Hot Summer, or a Brief History of Time (2006) -- Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd (2007) -- Peter Cameron (2007) -- Donald Barthelme (2009) -- Clarice Lispector (2009) -- Barack Obama (2009) -- The Wire (2010) -- Memoirs (2011) -- Friday Night Lights (2011) -- 9/11/11 (2011) -- GOP Primary Debate (2011) -- Werner Herzog's Into the Abyss (2011) -- Suzzy Roche's Wayward Saints (2012) -- Lena Dunham (2012) -- Wisconsin Recall (2012) -- Richard Ford's Canada (2012) -- Ethan Canin's "The Palace Thief" (2012) -- Homeland (2013) -- Jane Campion's Top of the Lake (2013) -- Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013) -- Bernard Malamud (2014) -- Miranda July (2014) -- True Detective (2015) -- Making a Murderer (2016) -- Helen Gurley Brown (2016) -- Ezra Edelman's O.J.: Made in America (2016) -- Thoughts on Hillary Clinton, December 2016 (2017) -- Stephen Stills (2017).
Abstract:
"A welcome surprise: more than fifty prose pieces, gathered together for the first time, by one of America's most revered and admired novelists and short-story writers, whose articles, essays, and cultural commentary--appearing in The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Harper's Magazine, and elsewhere--have been parsing the political, artistic, and media idiom for the last three decades. From Lorrie Moore's earliest reviews of novels by Margaret Atwood and Nora Ephron, to an essay on Ezra Edelman's 2016 O.J. Simpson documentary, and in between: Moore on the writing of fiction (the work of V. S. Pritchett, Don DeLillo, Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Munro, Stanley Elkin, Dawn Powell, Nicholson Baker, et al.) . . . on the continuing unequal state of race in America . . . on the shock of the shocking GOP . . . on the dangers (and cruel truths) of celebrity marriages and love affairs . . . on the wilds of television (The Wire, Friday Night Lights, Into the Abyss, Girls, Homeland, True Detective, Making a Murderer) . . . on the (d)evolving environment . . . on terrorism, the historical imagination, and the world's newest form of novelist . . . on the lesser (and larger) lives of biography and the midwifery between art and life (Anaïs Nin, Marilyn Monroe, John Cheever, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Eudora Welty, Bernard Malamud, among others) . . . and on the high art of being Helen Gurley Brown . . . and much, much more."-- Provided by publisher.
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Summary

Summary

A welcome surprise: more than fifty prose pieces, gathered together for the first time, by one of America's most revered and admired novelists and short-story writers, whose articles, essays and cultural commentary--
appearing in The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Harper's Magazine and elsewhere--have been parsing the political, artistic and media idiom for the last three decades.

From Lorrie Moore's earliest reviews of novels by Margaret Atwood and Nora Ephron, to an essay on Ezra Edelman's 2016 O.J. Simpson documentary, and everything in between: this book features Moore on the writing of fiction (the work of V. S. Pritchett, Don DeLillo, Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Munro, Stanley Elkin, Dawn Powell, Nicholson Baker et al.) . . . on the continuing unequal state of race in America . . . on the shock of the shocking GOP . . . on the dangers (and cruel truths) of celebrity marriages and love affairs . . . on the wilds of television ( The Wire, Friday Night Lights, Into the Abyss, Girls, Homeland, True Detective, Making a Murderer ) . . . on the (d)evolving environment . . . on terrorism, the historical imagination and the world's newest form of novelist . . . on the lesser (and larger) lives of biography and the midwifery between art and life (Anaïs Nin, Marilyn Monroe, John Cheever, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Eudora Welty, Bernard Malamud, among others) . . . and on the high art of being Helen Gurley Brown . . . and much, much more.

"Fifty years from now, it may well turn out that the work of very few American writers has as much to say about what it means to be alive in our time as that of Lorrie Moore" ( Harper's Magazine ).


Author Notes

Lorrie Moore was born Marie Lorena Moore on January 13, 1957 in Glen Falls, New York. She was nicknamed Lorrie by her parents. She attended St. Lawrence University and won Seventeen magazine's fiction contest. After graduation, she moved to Manhattan and worked as a paralegal for two years. In 1980 she enrolled in Cornell University's M.F.A. program. After graduation from Cornell she was encouraged by a teacher to contact an agent who sold her collection, Self-Help, which was composed of stories from her master's thesis. Lorrie Moore writes about failing relationships and terminal illness. She is the Delmore Schwartz Professor in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she teaches creative writing. She has also taught at Cornell University. She has written a children's book entitled The Forgotten Helper. She won the 1998 O. Henry Award for her short story People Like That They Are the Only People Here. In 1999 she was given the Irish Times International Fiction Prize for Birds of America. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2006 and in 2010 her novel A Gate at the stairs was a finalist for the Pen/Faulkner Award for fiction.

(Bowker Author Biography)


Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

Acclaimed fiction writer Moore (Bark: Stories) has compiled her nonfiction writings into a marvelous collection. The chronologically arranged selections, beginning with a 1983 review of Nora Ephron's Heartburn, include book reviews, personal essays, and cultural criticism on subjects that include Ross Perot and Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential debate and the television documentary OJ: Made in America. The cumulative effect is to provide a window onto the trajectory of both late 20th-century American culture and Moore's development as a 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, whether it's Ann Beattie's novel Park City or James Cameron's blockbuster Titanic. Her essays on politics are humorous but more critical, prophetically foreseeing "the televised flattery, the bad candy, the shifting hairstyles-the future of presidential campaigning" familiar today. However, the book's most deeply felt entries are the meditations on Moore's craft. In an essay aptly titled "On Writing," Moore claims "there is nothing more autobiographical than a book review or a violin solo." If so, then this book provides ample insight into Moore's inner life; it is certainly a boon to any lover of smart cultural criticism. Agent: Melanie Jackson, Melanie Jackson Agency. (Apr.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.


New York Review of Books Review

LAST STORIES, by William Trevor. (Viking, $26.) The great Irish writer, who died in 2016 at the age of 88, captured turning points in individual lives with powerful slyness. This seemingly quiet but ultimately volcanic collection is his final gift to us, and it is filled with plots sprung from human feeling. FASCISM: A Warning, by Madeleine Albright with Bill Woodward. (Harper/HarperCollins, $27.99.) Albright draws on her long experience in government service and as an educator to warn about a new rise of fascism around the world. She is hopeful that this threat can be overcome, but only, she says, if we recognize history's lessons and never take democracy for granted. MOTHERHOOD, by Sheila Heti. (Holt, $27.) The narrator of Heti's provocative new novel, a childless writer in her late 30s - like Heti herself - is preoccupied with a single question: whether to have a child. Her dilemma prompts her to consult friends, psychics, her conscience and a version of the I Ching. INTO THE RAGING SEA: Thirty-Three Mariners, One Megastorm, and the Sinking of the El Faro, by Rachel Slade. (Ecco/HarperCollins, $27.99.) Pieced together from texts, emails and black box recordings, this is a tense, moment-by-moment account of the 2015 sinking of the cargo ship El Faro during Hurricane Joaquin. SEE WHAT CAN BE DONE: Essays, Criticism, and Commentary, by Lorrie Moore. (Knopf, $29.95.) The first essay collection by this gifted fiction writer features incisive pieces about topics like Alice Munro, John Cheever, "The Wire," Dawn Powell and Don DeLillo, all of it subject to Moore's usual loving attention and quirky perspective. CAN DEMOCRACY SURVIVE GLOBAL CAPITALISM? by Robert Kuttner. (Norton, $27.95.) Kuttner returns to the argument he's been making with increasing alarm for the past three decades: Countries need to have autonomy to control their economies, otherwise they'll be crushed by the whims of the free market. THE GIRL WHO SMILED BEADS: A Story Of War and What Comes After, by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil. (Crown, $26.) As a 6-year-old refugee of the Rwandan genocide, Wamariya crisscrossed Africa with her sister, enduring poverty and violence. She recounts her path to America lyrically and analytically. AND NOW WE HAVE EVERYTHING: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready, by Meaghan O'Connell. (Little, Brown, $26.) This honest, neurotic, searingly funny memoir of pregnancy and childbirth is a welcome antidote in the panicked-expectant-mothers canon - though its gripping narrative will appeal to nonparents, too. WHITE HOUSES, by Amy Bloom. (Random House, $27.) A psychologically astute novel that celebrates the intimate relationship of Eleanor Roosevelt and the A.P. reporter Lorena Hickok. The full reviews of these and other recent books are on the web: nytimes.com/books


Library Journal Review

This collection of 66 previously published essays from 1983 to 2017 arranged in chronological order show the broad range of Moore's (Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of English, Vanderbilt Univ.; Bark: Stories) interests. Topics include television, movies, music, and literature. The title is based on instructions Moore received from a book review editor who asked her to submit a review: see what can be done, meaning write about something. Moore calls these reviews and essays "cultural responses to cultural responses." The volume includes a range of authors, from John Cheever to Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, and Richard Ford. There is a twist in a few reviews. "Stephen Stills" incorporates Moore's 2017 experience at a Stills concert into a review of a biography of the singer. "Ezra Edelman's O.J. Made in America" compares Moore's thoughts on the day of the Simpson verdict with the complicated construction of the man shown in the ESPN documentary. The political essays cover the presidency of George H.W. Bush in 1992 to "Election 2016: A Postscript." Personal pieces such as "Christmas for Everyone," which sheds light on Moore's family life. VERDICT Writers and readers will be impressed with Moore's astuteness and reach. The collection is an impressive review of one writer's nonfiction compendium. [See Prepub Alert, 10/9/17.]-Joyce Sparrow, Kenneth City, FL © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Excerpts

Excerpts

Introduction: The Miscellany The title of this book-- See What Can Be Done --is not a boast but an instruction. I received it with almost every note I got from Robert Silvers, editor of The New York Review of Books . He would propose I consider writing about something--he usually just FedExed a book to my door --and then he would offer a polite inquiry as to my interest: perhaps I'd like to take a look at such and such. "See what can be done," he would invariably close. "My best, Bob." It was a magical request, and it suggested that one might like to surprise oneself. Perhaps a door could open and you would step through it, though he would be the one to have put it there in the first place. Most of the pieces in this book are what could be done, at least by me, as I immersed myself in seeing what others could do; cultural responses to cultural responses. However personal and idiosyncratic they are, the pieces by and large fall into the category of "reviewing" although when a review gets long enough it may qualify as a "critical essay" and when it is succinct enough it can be a remark. (Remarks are not necessarily lesser: I believe Bette Davis should have won a Nobel Prize for "Old age is no place for sissies," a line Bob Dylan himself might covet.) Essays, reviews, occasional meditations are all included here. Whether there is really a reason to round them all up, even selectively, is a question I can't answer. But I can say that I did the gathering because, looking at my decades-long life as a fiction writer, I noticed another trail had formed--a shadow life of miscellaneous prose pieces--and I wondered about it as a trip, if not precisely a journey. The pieces begin in 1983 in Cornell's literary magazine, Epoch (where I wrote reviews of books by Margaret Atwood and Nora Ephron), and they end, in time for the golden anniversary the Summer of Love, with a take on Stephen Stills--thirty-four years of, well, stuff. I mercifully have not included every last thing, though it may seem as if I have; in the late 1980s when I was once introduced to a particular guest at a party, the guest said, "Oh, yes! I know you: you review books!" and my heart sank. After my debut collection of stories was published, Anatole Broyard, then a New York Times Book Review editor, was the first review-commissioner to phone me at my office in Wisconsin and offer me work. Slightly terrified, I kept taking his assignments. "I think I've become Anatole Broyard's slave girl," I said to my then beau. "I don't know how to stop." And indeed I probably wrote too many of them, telling myself I needed the money. But a fiction writer reviewing is performing--I still believe--an essential task. Very few practicing artists review the work of their fellow sculptors or painters or dancers or composers and so the conversation is left to non-practitioners. Although there are of course exceptions, and although the film directors of the French New Wave began as critics, and the sculptor Donald Judd wrote reviews of his peers, as did Schumann, Debussy (under a pseudonym), and Virgl Thomson, in general the medium and the idiom of criticism do not belong to artists. One cannot really dance a review of someone else's dance. One cannot paint a review of someone else's exhibition. Criticism can be a rarefied field, but that aspect is usually galling to the artist, especially when the artist feels misunderstood and is reminded that critics have never attempted let alone forged the creative work that they, the critics, nonetheless feel emboldened to evaluate. In the words of the jazz musician Ben Sidran: Critics! Can't even float. They just stand on the shore. Wave at the boat . Or as Aristotle wrote in Politics, "Those who are to be judges must also be performers." Conversely, perhaps those who are performers must also be judges--once in a while. And so a contribution to the cultural conversation--by narrative artists themselves, speaking in unmuddied, unacademic, unobfuscating critical voices--I thought of as a difficult but obligatory citizenship: jury duty. (The longest piece here, coincidentally, is a defense of a jury.) My own way of discussing the work of others, then, has been improvised and not grounded in any philosophy or theory other than lack of philosophy or theory. It has been, de facto, I assume, a practitioner's take. As for technique, I have always aimed for clarity and organization but don't always succeed. I often move every which way in attempting to track my own thoughts about someone else's endeavor; sometimes I inappropriately include my own life in the conversation to show how narrative art intrudes, fits, or does not fit into the daily lives of those who are experiencing it. I have aimed for the human, but also for the eccentricities and particularities of the real encounter, and I do not always avoid stupidities. Sometimes I head for stupidities in order to discuss them, even if they are my own. Often a piece is constructed in a circular fashion, like a cat clearing a space before it naps. Other times I veer. I sometimes try to pull back as much as I can to look at something from a distance, without losing my balance. I then also try to move forward again and bear down. When, in 1999, I began writing for The New York Review of Books , which published articles by people much better educated than I, but which also offered me more space than I was used to, my stance became that of the ingenuous Martian who had just landed on a gorgeous alien planet. With no agenda and only the usual amounts of research, I said, "What's this?" I tried to figure out what feelings the piece contained, what it made the reader feel, what that said about our world and our lives and what feelings we value. I aimed for simple (I aspired to "deceptively simple") and true. I aimed for bravery of opinion though I am not by temperament especially brave. But I admire iconoclasm if it is not too breezy or gratuitous. If what the Emperor was wearing was a mixed bag, I tried to indicate as much. I also tried to figure out what the Emperor had in mind, even if one is not supposed to guess at intention. I have tried to avoid petulance, Internet-ese, academic theory, the diction and dialect of the professionally educated critic, and never to use the word "relatable" instead of "sympathetic," or 'impact" as a verb, or any form of the word "enjoy," which should be reserved for one's grandparents or other relatives. I tried not to drag readers by the scruff of the neck and march them from paragraph to paragraph, point by point, but did not always succeed. I allowed myself asides and tangents and personal anecdotes because circumnavigating a thing--the napping cat again, patrolling for snakes--is sometimes a useful approach. First-person assessments engage me--Dorothy Parker's reviews were full of them so she could employ her rapier with faux reluctance -- and often the use of the first person is not arrogant but modest, hedged, and more accurate. One does not always have to write in the authoritative third-person voice of God: if you fail to sound like God (and you probably will), you may end up sounding like flap copy. The first-person pronoun can be a form of deference and is useful and precise when discussing the subjectivity and crowded detail of narrative art. It suggests one specific encounter paid close attention to. It appreciates the intersection of one individual reader's life with the thing that has been read. It breathes air into the conversation--or can. When someone once said to me, "Your pieces in The New York Review of Books are the only ones I can actually understand," I knew it wasn't praise--the speaker's real subject was the difficult brilliance and impressive erudition of the other critics he admired there. Nonetheless, I decided to take it as a compliment. (One has to seize encouragement where one can.) Someone once also told me early on that there was a well-known list of six things a book review should always do. This caused me to break out into a cold sweat. I politely asked for the list but it was never given to me, nor did I ever find it anywhere, so I carried on, without knowledge of official requirements. And to this day I still don't know what those six things are. I began writing about television by accident. I did not watch much television as an adult and had not watched much as a child, having grown up in a house where the watching of it was discouraged and highly supervised. We read the Bible every night at the dinner table, and in general television was considered a little wicked and lazy and for special occasions. Like eggnog. But in 2010, after The Wire was already out on DVD, I watched the series on a binge (also like eggnog)--living in David Simon's Baltimore for an entire summer--and afterward, intoxicated, and wanting to extend my experience there by reading what other people had to say (one terrific function of cultural criticism is a kind of afterlife of the original encounter), I could not find very much written about it. The London papers had some articles, but there was very little in the American press: nothing in The New Yorker and something extremely tiny in The New York Times . I asked Bob Silvers if he would like something for The New York Review of Books,  and he quickly said yes. His sensibility was always spry, eager, open, a source of joy for everyone who worked for him. He was so hiply catholic in his tastes and interests that he was game for practically any kind of cultural commentary: meditations on regional politics, reports on every manner of book, television, series, film, or even. Gameness is a beautiful quality in a person. My ignorance of a topic never deterred him from trying to assign it to me. He started offering more and more television for me to watch and see what could be done. I turned a few things down. But I took on programs and films I was genuinely interested in watching and wrote about them in my Martian way. Montaigne's que sais-je . A little light, a little wonder, some skepticism, some awe, some squinting, some je ne sais quoi . Pick a thing up, study it, shake it, skip it across a still surface to see how much felt and lively life got baked into it. Does it sail? Observe. See what can be done. Best Love Song of the Millennium (1999)   Opinions on music can be stubborn and lonely things. I believe, for instance, that the 20th century's most intoxicating waltz is "Let's Go Fly a Kite" from Mary Poppins . But don't ask me, with any strenuousness, to justify it, or I will gnaw my fist and stare forlornly out the window. Nonetheless, a calm certitude can descend when considering the finest love song of the millennium. Such a song is really a matter less of opinion than of clear fact, the determination of which can be helped along by the following scientific method. A millennium is a long time. Very few love songs written in the first three-quarters of it have we even heard of. These, therefore, we automatically eliminate. The few we do know are dubious confections, peppered with Hey nonnies or Ho nonnies or else strange, violent deaths befalling the lovers--briars and vine-roses sprouting from the corpses. The slaying and planting of people is poison to the love message of a song. It is a corruption, too much antithesis for the thesis. If death is imminent and about, it will always steal focus from love. And then we have a death song, more than a love one. A love song with no death in it, love that is not a fatal bargain or an addiction: that is a love song for the ages. And so if we continue in this vein and eliminate from consideration all the songs of the 19th and 20th centuries in which death quickly befalls the singing lover, we can really make some progress. All the Liebestods and would-be Liebestods gone: most of Puccini, all of Wagner, even "As Long as He Needs Me" from Oliver . (Did I fail to mention we are doing only Western music, and despite the marvelous "You're a Hard Dog to Keep Under the Porch," no country-western music at all? In fact, we are scarcely venturing outside the category of show tunes. Science has its demands.) This brings us closer to the lighter popular song of the 20th century, and even here there is much pruning to do. "You Belong to Me" is too possessive, even materialistic; "You Were Meant for Me" is sweet but fraught with the hopeless yearning of bachelors secretly in love with solitude. "On the Street Where You Live" is the theme song of a stalker. "They Can't Take That Away From Me" is a gorgeous laundry list of what to pack in the heart's knapsack when fate forecloses on love; its genius is to rhyme the emotional souvenirs "the way you hold your knife" and "the way you changed my life." But it can be sung terribly, and too often is. Then there are the blues, which, although full of the language of failed negotiations, can be friendly and delicious. But they are really about the long, slow dying of the singer, and not purely love songs at all. Which brings us, finally, to the only logical choice for the greatest love song of the millennium: the final trio from Richard Strauss's "Der Rosenkavalier," of course. Here we have one of the most beautiful things ever written; if it can be sung at all, it will not be sung badly. Occurring at the opera's penultimate moment, the older woman (the Marschallin) elegantly gives up her young lover (Octavian) upon glimpsing him newly in love with someone his own age (Sophie). Love, in the story by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, is simultaneously embraced and selflessly surrendered what are trios for? Light and wise, the song has the melodic depths and passion of Wagner but the libretto and spirit of Mozart. It is, as superlative musical things often are, a building upon, a historical summation, the borrowing by genius from genius. And in its breathtaking high notes it surely contains the music of the spheres; if the angels have tea kettles they whistle like this. "I chose to love him in the right way," sings the Marschallin, "so that I would love even his love for another! . . . Most things in this world are unbelievable when you hear about them. But when they happen to you, you believe them and don't know why . . . So be it." The clock has run out on the Marschallin's romantic life. She has had her chance, her time, and now she must bow out how suited to the close of this last thousand years. It is a knowing, queenly love song, in its exquisite sweetness and generosity, not unlike Dolly Parton's sublime valedictory "I Will Always Love You." And so here I must stop: I have landed on country-western music again, surely the opposite of science. Excerpted from See What Can Be Done: Essays, Criticism, and Commentary by Lorrie Moore All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.