It’s not given to many authors to produce masterpieces while heading into their nineties. By that age, they’re usually slipping slightly fuzzy trifles out into an indulgent world that handles those trifles with kid gloves out of respect for a long literary career now largely agreed to be over. The appearance of such trifles is taken as a starter’s pistol to let loose think-pieces on the whole career, and the trifles themselves are typically described under the all-forgiving euphemism “late style.”
It’s both diplomatic and sad, and it’s unavoidable to think of such things when taking up this slim 100-page new bagatelle by prolific critic and editor Joseph Epstein, who’s in his late eighties and here mainly ruminates lightly on the nature of fiction, with plenty of personal anecdotes and asides. As an echo of some of Epstein’s bigger and more vigorous books, things like Life Sentences or his brilliant Pertinent Players: Essays on the Literary Life, this latest, The Novel, Who Needs It? (Epstein says the answer is “we all do,” and in reality the answer is “nobody”) will provide an hour of entertaining reading and plenty of gentle smiles.
The old cliche very much applies to Epstein, although it’s likewise a bit melancholy: he’s forgotten more about books and reading than most people will ever know. The various brief sections are filled with genial literary references tossed off with casual erudition, whether it’s a mention of Theodore Dreiser’s daring as an author or the merits of Lord David Cecil’s wonderful but now-forgotten book The Fine Art of Reading. As conversation, The Novel, Who Needs It would sparkle.
As a book, unfortunately, it’s inevitably got more padding than a hockey goalie.