Better known, perhaps, for her fiction, Lorrie Moore has also been writing criticism for over thirty years. See What Can Be Done, the long awaited first collection of her non-fiction writing, brings her work over this period together in one place, and it’s a jam packed four-hundred pages. Topics are wide ranging; from Titanic to Monica Lewinsky, Edna St Vincent Millay to Margaret Atwood. There’s even an exploration of the best love songs of the millennium for those interested in pondering the relative merits of show tunes vs. Dolly Parton (sorry, but Dolly clearly wins). Strangely though, it was in the introduction where some of the most compelling writing of the whole collection can be found. In it, she explains that the title of the book, See What Can be Done, refers to an instruction that accompanied almost every note she received from Robert Silvers, the editor of the New York Review of Books. In this one phrase is such hope and, as Lorrie describes, such magic, that it is hard not to get caught up in the romantic nature of putting thoughts on a page and seeing what could happen. She also discusses her history and experiences with the various publications she has written for, which is like catnip for those of us who read writer biographies with an almost religious fervour.
Although the collection consists mostly of Moore’s books reviews, these are not necessarily examples of her best writing. Some of them are astute and sensitive, including her pieces on Atwood and Updike, but many feel a little strained, as if Moore isn’t quite sure of the boundaries of the format and isn’t particularly interesting in testing them, even if she is. There are some fine lines though: ‘“It is sometimes, as a feminist in the world, difficult to stay pleased,” she writes in a review of Claudia Roth Pierpont’s Passionate Minds and it is a line I underlined with great enthusiasm. ‘Bobbie Ann Mason writes the kind of fiction her own characters would never read’ Moore writes at the beginning of her review of Bobbie Ann Mason’s Love Life. This is probably as acerbic as Moore gets, which isn’t a criticism in itself but some more conviction would have made the reviews feel more alive, perhaps.
Her political pieces are somewhat dated now, but in some ways this is what makes them some of the most interesting writing in the collection. It is fascinating to look back on how politics was written about in the 1990s and early 2000s. Not that the characters are any less hideous or hypocritical, but that the culture wars of the past few years have brought with them new layers of hopelessness and a cynicism which are simply not as present in Moore’s entertaining, if sometimes slight, takes on the politics of the Clinton era. Not that any nostalgia for Bill Clinton should be encouraged, of course.
There’s lots to enjoy in this collection, not least the celebration of literary criticism in Moore’s introduction, the sentiment of which will hopefully warm the weary hearts of the many underemployed critics out there. Let’s take the See What Can Be Done instruction as a mantra and begin the long, hard slog of reclaiming the space we’ve lost.
See What Can Be Done was out via Faber Books on 3rd May 2018