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Renata Adler Diagnoses Untreated Book Review Problems

“God was not dead, but the Muse was extremely unwell,” wrote Renata Adler in Speedboat, describing literary and film criticism in the 1970s.

New York Review Books will republish the book tomorrow (March 19), bringing the classic book back into print. The book collects a series of thoughts and episodes in the life of a journalist in New York City. Her sharp criticism of book and movie reviews still apply more than 35 years later:

The physical-assault metaphor had taken over the reviews. “Guts,” never much of a word outside the hunting season, was a favorite noun in literary prose. People were said to have or to lack them, to perceive beauty and make moral distinctions in no other place. “Gut-busting” and “gut-wrenching” were accolades. “Nerve-shattering,” “eye-popping,” “bone-crunching”—the responsive critic was a crushed, impaled, electrocuted man. “Searing” was lukewarm. Anything merely spraining or tooth-extracting would have been only a minor masterpiece. “Literally,” in every single case, meant figuratively; that is, not literally. This film will literally grab you by the throat. This book will literally knock you out of your chair. “Presently” always meant not soon but now.

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