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Never in Doubt : CRITICAL ESSAYS ON AMERICAN BOOKS, 1972-1985 by Peter S. Prescott (Arbor House: $18.95; 352 pp.)

May 18, 1986|Jack Miles

Peter S. Prescott distinguishes the book critic (he is Newsweek's book critic) from the literary critic and the book reviewer, as follows: "The literary critic, usually an academic sort, is accustomed to applying great labors to narrow areas; he examines the past--old and relatively recent books--and retrieves from it that which is of use to the present. The reviewer lives entirely in the present; he is content to describe a new book's contents and (if he remembers) indicate whether he approves of it. Somewhere in between, the fellow I call a book critic plies his trade. He is concerned with the present, but brings to it some sense of the past. He puts the new books he considers into some kind of context. . . . Most important, he demonstrates how a book works, or why it doesn't. . . ."

The distinction is a false one. Any reasonably good book reviewer will do exactly what Prescott says the book critic must do, and the writings of this country's newspaper and magazine book critics are universally and rightly referred to as book reviews. Prescott is a poor critic of criticism, then, but happily, he is quite a good reviewer of books.

Having eliminated biographies and autobiographies from this anthology of his reviews, Prescott offers a final selection of which two thirds are devoted to fiction, this larger part being also the better part. The value of the volume as a whole, in other words, is that of a handy guide to recent American fiction.

Prescott groups his fiction reviews by category: feminist novels, religious novels, journalists' novels, etc. down to the wry "School of Vonnegut" (Richard Brautigan and John Irving) and "School of Barthelme" (Robert Coover). A few novelists--Philip Roth and John Updike, notably--are followed through several of their novels. The final published works of James Jones and Thornton Wilder become retrospective statements on those writers, and something similar happens in "The Decline of John Gardner" and "Goodbye to John Cheever." Eleven writers are covered in a seven-part subsection dealing with "The Art of the Thriller."

Prescott, who never forgets to indicate whether he approves, approves too often for my taste. Still, were a foreign visitor to ask about the state of American fiction, here would be an excellent first answer. Many of the high points are hit, and Prescott's reasons for aiming at them are usually just the right ones.

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