The enticement of the short essay, especially the review, is the focused, in-and-out nature of the reader’s experience: when I pick up one of my favorite short-form critics (Stuart Klawans, Dwight Garner, Peter Schjeldahl), I’m craving the latest art news in a quick dose of wit, clarity, and context. A collection of reviews is an entirely different type of enlightenment; a reader may be tempted to use it almost as a reference manual, sampling a little here, a little there. I was surprised and delighted, then, to find the celebrated fiction writer Lorrie Moore’s See What Can Be Done––a long, chronological compilation covering books, films, music, TV, and (for good measure) politics––engrossing enough to read straight through.
The sheer variety of works and subjects Moore covers (“thirty-four years of, well, stuff,” she says) surely has something to do with why the writing is so consistently stimulating. Moore approaches her subjects as a practitioner fascinated by her fellow artists, especially fiction writers, and takes them on their own terms. This contributes to the sense that each review is an experience as discrete as the work itself (she doesn't grant politicians the same courtesy, nor should she). She proclaims in her introduction that she “is not grounded in any philosophy or theory other than lack of philosophy or theory,” and indeed the reader never comes to dread the predictability of a self-proclaimed “ism.” Combined with her curiosity about how a work fits into its own literary or cinematic or musical times, Moore’s interest in fully revealing each work she discusses becomes a kind of guiding spirit. To read Moore on Jane Campion’s miniseries Top of the Lake is also to read Moore on Terrence Malick and Paul Thomas Anderson, to contemplate how one generation of idiosyncratic filmmakers has managed to thrive in the stultifying world of mass-market predictability.
The title of this collection comes from the assigning notes Moore received from Robert Silvers, the longtime editor of the New York Review of Books; many of the pieces also appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, and a slew of other high-profile magazines and anthologies. This range of venues results in varying lengths and tones, but Moore’s approach is invariably punchy and droll (if a few lines elicit groans, that’s what happens with thirty-four years of stuff). She is sublimely generous to her fellow writers and couches her minimal complaints in relativity. At the end of a long and admiring consideration of Ann Beattie’s New and Selected Stories, she asks: “Do the characters sometimes seem similar from story to story? The same can be said of every short-story writer who ever lived. Does the imaginative range seem limited? It is the same limited range Americans are so fond of calling Chekhovian.” And then the signature Moore zinger: “Is every new story here one for the ages? With a book this generous from a writer this gifted, we would be vulgar to ask.”