cover image In Fact: Essays on Writers and Writing

In Fact: Essays on Writers and Writing

Thomas Mallon. Pantheon Books, $26.95 (368pp) ISBN 978-0-375-40916-5

Mid-length book reviews are a tough sell when put between covers, but the pedigree here will make this collection a must-have for the drier side of the set. Mallon is the author of five respected historical novels (Henry and Clara, etc.) and solid nonfiction on plagiarism (Stolen Words) and diaries (A Book of One's Own), among other volumes. But his bread-and-butter is the feature-length review and book-biz musing, including a six-year stint as a GQ columnist (""Doubting Thomas"") and regular appearances in the NYTBR and the New Yorker, among other mags. Almost all of the 45 essays here first appeared in such publications, many of them contributing to his winning the NBCC Citation for Excellence in Reviewing in 1998--and it's easy to see why. There are great titles (""Six Feet Under but Above the Fold""; ""Is God Read?"") and great leads (""Half his writing life was aftermath,"" begins a review of a Truman Capote bio). But serious readers will find on the whole that the pieces don't work outside of their original do-I-want-to-buy-this-book? contexts, lacking a compelling critical framework beyond cogent dispatching of plots, characters and conceptual terrains. The discussions of near-canonical oeuvres (of Sinclair Lewis, John O'Hara and others) don't compel fresh readings, despite Mallon's judicious enthusiasm. And not-so-serious readers will find they already know all they want to about Snow Falling on Cedars, the mechanics of historical fiction or the author's stint at Brown. (Jan. 8)