Henry Louis Gates Jr., co-editor, is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. Emmy Award–winning filmmaker, literary scholar, journalist, cultural critic, and institution builder, Gates has authored or coauthored twenty-one books and created fifteen documentary films. He is the editor of two other volumes in the Library of America series, Frederick Douglass: Autobiographies and, with William L. Andrews, Slave Narratives.
Paul Devlin, co-editor, teaches English at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and has published essays and criticism in many periodicals. He is the editor of Murray Talks Music: Albert Murray on Jazz and Blues (2016) and Rifftide: The Life and Opinions of Papa Jo Jones, as told to Albert Murray (2011), a finalist for the Jazz Journalists Association’s book award.
In the introduction to his essay collection, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, Geoff Dyer writes: “I virtually never read newspapers or magazines. If I see a piece by a writer I admire in a paper I very rarely read it; but as I skim through catalogs of forthcoming books, the ones that catch my eye are collections of exactly those pieces that I neglected to read in their original contexts.” Dyer here is preemptively defending his book, claiming its construction had been in the works since the beginning and thereby distinguishing its existence against collections of “occasional pieces” that are “considered a pretty low form of book.”
Although I do read newspapers and magazines (almost exclusively online, though), books are the preferable way to appreciate a journalist or an essayist. There are far too many publications to track (to say nothing of actually reading) a working writer’s regular output, and, moreover, a collection paints a cumulative portrait of the author through recurring subjects and emerging preoccupations. Consider how many careers have been cemented by the release of a collection: recent examples include Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, and Charles D’Ambrosio’s Loitering. Though these writers had been working and publishing for years, it was the release of their books that put public punctuation on the lengthy, periodic sentence of their reputations.
A book elevates the work of a journalist or critic or columnist to the level of art—or at least provides an object at which previously disparate fans can direct their artistic appreciation. For instance, although Joseph Mitchell was well-known in his time for his landmark New Yorker pieces and his reputation persisted among writers and journalists, but he hadn’t published a thing for many years. But when Up in the Old Hotel, a compendium of his stunning work, came out in 1992 it all but established Mitchell as an early practitioner (if not originator) of both the New Journalism (practiced by Gay Talese and Truman Capote and Joan Didion, et al) and the New Yorker’s influential (and oft parodied) style. More recently has seen the publication of Ellen Willis’s rock criticism in Out of Vinyl Deeps and her bracing cultural essays in The Essential Ellen Willis, both of which unambiguously announced—unfortunately all-too-late, as Willis died in 2006—the prodigious talents of a pioneering critic and a brilliant thinker. These kinds of books, of course, don’t create the reputations of these writers, but there is a certain sense that they make it official.
This year has given us essay collections by a wide variety of writers from different points in their careers—some life-spanning tomes, some brazen debuts, some posthumous celebrations, and one novelist working, as William Gass phrased it, “off duty.” And here I wish to discuss 12 of these books, in praise not just of the journalistic/critical essay as art but in general to all its eclectic practitioners—those often unknown and usually underpaid freelancers, those occasional contributors struggling to get by, those staff writers churning out 2,000-word pieces like a court stenographer, whose volume seems to reduce their artistry but who are merely practicing a different kind of art, one that necessarily responds and reacts to the world and its daily shifts, and so instead represents not a finished product but a process of continual creation—here’s to writers at work.
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THE ROCK CRITICS
The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, Jessica Hopper (Featherproof Press)
Like all great rock critics, Jessica Hopper is much more than a rock critic. She is a force of cultural cool, a whip-smart badass and a passionate advocate. Even her more straightforward reviews are informed by a larger conversation going on, at times, outside the realm of music. In her review of Miley Cyrus’s Bangerz, she refers to Cyrus’s persona as “strategic hot mess”—a guise that, two years on, persists in, e.g., Amy Schumer’s film Trainwreck—and notes, of Cyrus’s attempt to “give it all away,” that “in knowing everything, we find we know nothing.”
Her reports on the Vans Warped Tour and the Suicide Girls are trenchant and sharply observed, but it is the pieces on, for instance, R. Kelly’s sexual predation that reveal Hopper’s feminist punch, her humane anger—or her angry humanity—over the state of the world for women. In a dense and disturbing interview with Jim DeRogatis, the reporter who first broke the R. Kelly story, he says, “The saddest fact I’ve learned is nobody matters less to our society than young black women. Nobody.” Throughout the reprehensible media coverage of the trial that followed, it was, as always, the victims who weren’t heard, who suffered again. Hopper shows, again and again, why rock criticism—or really any criticism for that matter—is still relevant and maybe even necessary, especially when, as it is often here, the work is more compelling than its subjects.
Her prose is colloquial in the extreme but rarely relies on cliché, and even when she uses social-media-hued portmanteaux like “unfuckingbelievable” she makes it feel fresh. And she’s also fantastic with compound adjectives, as in, e.g., her description of Dinosaur Jr.’s appeal to “teenage weirdos” in the 80s as “combining the huge, thrilling Marshall-stack overdrive that made Neil Young famous with the jacked-up, amphetamine-pulse of hardcore.” With casual cool that doesn’t condescend and moral conviction that doesn’t proselytize, The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic is an important work by writer who deserves wider recognition.
Real Life Rock: The Complete Top Ten Columns, 1986-2014, Greil Marcus (Yale University Press)
Greil Marcus doesn’t require any further recognition: he’s already established himself as America’s premier music writer, which makes Real Life Rock, an all-but-complete volume of his peripatetic column, a real treasure. Covering nearly 30 years, reading it is basically like taking a trip through our recent cultural history with Marcus as your guide. In a blunt and funny introduction, Marcus narrates the many publications in which his column has found a home: first the Village Voice (“until [they] hired a new music editor who didn’t like it”), and then Artforum, and then Salon (until it was “killed in 2004 by David Talbot” under the bullshit guise that it was to save money), and then City Pages, and then Interview (again, new editors: “We’re going more visual”), and then finally The Believer (though actually since The Believer’s hiatus Marcus has gone to Barnes & Noble Review). Throughout it all, though, Marcus kept with it. Each entry takes the form of a top-ten list, and Marcus fills them with whatever’s on his mind that week, and provides a brief commentary. In a single list, Marcus will cover—as he did on January 8, 2001—everything from the audiobook of Philip Roth’s The Human Stain as read by Arliss Howard to a PJ Harvey show at the Bowery Ballroom to Val Kilmer hosting Saturday Night Live to a Leni Riefenstahl 2001 desk calendar. His notes are better when they’re longer, but Marcus also shows a near-Nabokovian adeptness for brevity, as in this entry, from May 13, 1986, Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ‘69”: “It won’t last. Why should it?” Is there anything else one could say on the subject?
Massive Pissed Love: Nonfiction, 2001-2014, Richard Hell, Soft Skull Press
Richard Hell was an actual punk rock icon before he began writing criticism (though he did publish some poems before starting a band). Dude co-founded Television—one of the first rock outfits to play CBGB’s just after it changed from Hilly’s on the Bowery—as well as The Heartbreakers (not Tom Petty’s) and Richard Hell and the Voidoids. He influenced everyone from Patti Smith and Lou Reed to The Misfits and Sonic Youth.
It is his status as an important cultural figure that prompts the publication of his collected nonfiction, as Hell is someone you read precisely because he is not a conventional critic—or, more aptly, because he is Richard Hell. Some of the long pieces—like his excellent study of Nathanael West—and some of the stuff on music—like his battle between the Velvet Underground and the Rolling Stones—are worthy reads, but why, for instance, was it so necessary to include his review of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which concludes with, “The film works. It’s good. It moved me and I didn’t expect that”? And why is such a middling assessment included in “Love” section of the book? Is that what love sounds like?
In other places, Hell is funny and abrasive and blunt, across a wide array of interests (he covers everything from photography to dreams to cunnilingus), but there are also times when he’s priggish, as when he writes, “You can’t talk about Sarah Silverman without mentioning her appearance.” Umm, yes you can. Or how about when he asks, in reference to the Michael Jackson child molestation trial in 2005, “What’s wrong with a child being initiated into sex by his favorite celebrity?” The repugnance of this is made all more confounding when, pages later, Hell vehemently objects to Larry Clark’s 1995 movie Kids because “it was a long voyeuristic leer” filled with “endless soft-core kiddie porn.” How a film’s depiction (with consenting actors) of underage sex is more reprehensible than an actual adult male seducing young children into his bed is beyond me. Clearly a central component of Hell’s project (or maybe just his personality) is provocation—and he accomplishes that feat—but I like Hell much better when he’s ruminative and far less when he’s an asshole.
THE NEW YORKER WRITERS
Joy Ride: Show People & Their Shows, John Lahr (W.W. Norton)
John Lahr, the longtime senior theater critic for The New Yorker, by now must be one of the world’s foremost experts on “show people,” and in his new collection Joy Ride: Show People & Their Shows, he aims to get past their “official stories” and present, a la Samuel Johnson, a “Lives of the Theatricals.” Lahr is particularly suited to such an effort. In addition to his magazine work, Lahr has written some of the most illuminating biographies of major 20th-century theatrical figures—the most recent of which, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, stands as the best and most riveting bio I’ve read since Gerald Clarke’s Capote or Richard Ellman’s Oscar Wilde. In Joy Ride, Lahr gives us much briefer (but not always less effective) accounts of luminaries like Arthur Miller, Mike Nichols and Wallace Shawn. A certain amount of theatrical knowledge will definitely help a reader through these pieces, but Lahr is skilled enough that anyone interested in human beings can enjoy them.
In his profile of Arthur Miller, Lahr follows the legendary playwright to the cabin he built so that he could write The Death of a Salesman in isolation. Wallace Shawn (the great actor and writer, himself the author of a great collection of essays, 2009’s Essays) marvels at the strangeness of people coming up to him and saying, “Hey! You’re the guy who was in The Princess Bride!” And Sarah Ruhl—author of In the Next Room and Dead Man’s Cell Phone (and also of a wonderful essay collection called 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write), and one of my favorite contemporary playwrights—notes that the whole reason she now writes plays might be because her fourth-grade teacher, Mr. Spangenberger, refused to stage a courtroom drama she’d written. These human moments—drawn, Lahr writes, from months of work and “about a thousand pages of interviews with my subject”—are Lahr’s specialty, an ability to look past these authors’ mythologies without demeaning their achievements.
Reporting Always: Writings from The New Yorker, Lillian Ross (Scribner)
If Joseph Mitchell mythologized the ordinary, then Lillian Ross, The New Yorker’s longtime reporter, demythologized the famous. Mitchell’s pieces were steeped in the real streets of New York, through which Mitchell would take regular constitutionals for the very purpose of keeping rhythm with his city. Ross’s profiles in Reporting Always—from 1945 on—are exquisite examples of the form, particularly because of Ross’s wonderful ability to let her reportage speak for itself. When The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s came out in 1967, Ross didn’t express her own opinions about that seminal album but let record store owners and musicians (and even, under a pseudonym, William Shawn, The New Yorker’s longtime editor until 1987, with whom Ross would have a long and uncustomary romance) do the opining for her. Or when she attends a cocktail party for Beat poets in 1960, she doesn’t point out the hypocrisy of the guests’ adoring sycophancy and the goofiness of their pretensions, she merely lets them do it themselves. “Where’s Jack Kerouac?” one woman asks. “My son told me if I came to this party I’d see Jack Kerouac.” “Where’s Norman Mailer?” becomes a refrain throughout the piece. By limiting her presence, Ross allows the personalities of her subjects to pop, even if—or especially if—they are unlikeable.
Take her famous profile of Ernest Hemingway (published in book form in 1961), “How Do You Like It Now, Gentlemen?” When it was first published readers criticized Ross for what they thought was an attack, but in her introduction Ross denies such a motive: “But I liked Hemingway exactly as he was, and I’m happy that my profile caught him exactly as he was.” Despite this assertion, it’s hard not to see, 65 years on, Hemingway here as a kind of parody of himself. Here he is on the critics of New York:
They are like those people who go to ball games and can’t tell the players without a score card…What the hell! If they can do you harm, let them do it. It is like being a third basemen and protesting because they hit line drivers at you. Line drivers are regrettable, but to be expected. [Then, on war novelists who were not themselves soldiers.] They are just like an outfielder who will drop a fly on you when you have pitched to have the batter hit a high fly to that outfielder, or when they’re pitching they try to strike everybody out. [When Hemingway pitched, he never stuck anyone out, because] I knew I had only so many fast balls in that arm…Would make them pop to short instead, or fly out, or hit it on the ground, bouncing.
I mean, seriously, how long can a person stretch a sports metaphor? He also talks about hunting, and war, and writing, and why New York sucks. That’s pretty much it.
Most of the time, though, Ross painted with tenderness and clear affinity. Of Robin Williams and then-wife Marsha Williams (nee Garces), Ross has nothing but love and respect, so the two pieces here take on a eulogistic and melancholic aspect knowing, as we do, the end of Williams’s. Ross is a gifted observer, and her technique of writing narrative glimpses instead of comprehensive bios (like Lahr did) reads almost like fiction, which makes some of the stuff from the 50s work like a time machine—you are really behind the scenes with Ross, for example at the Miss America pageant in 1949: “In front of the dressing room, Miss Florida was taking leave of her mother. ‘Smile, now, honey,’ said her mother. ‘Ah am smilin’, Mama,’ said Miss Florida”) or with a 19-year-old Julie Andrews in 1954, way before she became a household name. Ross, again and again, focuses her considerable talents not on commentary or abstractions, but on the real people in front of her, in all their humanity, no matter how notorious or mythic they supposedly are. Lillian Ross is an American treasure, and Reporting Always is her most representative work.
Note Book, Jeff Nunokawa (Princeton University Press)
Like a lot of the writers here, Jeff Nunokawa is a professor of English—in his case, Princeton University. Unlike the other writers here, however, Nunokawa didn’t publish the pieces that make up his book in major magazines or acclaimed journals but on Facebook—and in the “Notes” section that nobody fucking uses, no less. His “essays” are short meditations on a quote or a photo or an idea, and he has eight years worth of them. Presented in chronological order, Nunokawa’s brief thoughts vary from the axiomatic—as in this December 2007 post, in its entirety: “We have to be careful about the words we use, because they can’t be careful about the way they use us”—to the philosophical to the very personal. He can be playful too: at one point he says he associates Bea Arthur with Samuel Johnson!
Though Nunokawa is not a journalist or a critic, his daily writing and its results are worth noting here. Only by sitting down everyday and getting those words on a page can a writer access the depths of their mind, and watching Nunokawa think, examine, wonder and consider proves the truth of this practice. As he goes along, Nunokawa is able to tap into a kind of thematic rhythm, and through multiple entries, you can see his ever-curious spirit expanding.
Some of his references and allusions are obscure and his ideas opaque, but even that Nunokawa addresses in typically gregarious manner. In an entry titled “We Apologize for the Allusions” (riffing on Lionel Trilling’s defense of “The Waste Land”), Nunokawa wonders if poets name-drop simply out of loneliness and goes on to compare literary intertextuality to the melancholy inevitabilities of time:
You lose so many friends as the years go on (a loss of life; a failure of love; a misplaced address)—it’s hard to keep in mind that those you have left don’t necessarily all know each other; so that the unannounced return of an old one from twilight sleep or fervid youth gets you so excited… that you forget your manners and neglect to present him properly to the others in the room.
Not only is this a lovely and sympathetic view of what’s often seen as nothing more than academic pedantry but it also resembles one of those wonderful omniscient digressions in Dickens or James.
Because of the intimate way in which he posted in his notes—on his personal Facebook page, presumably posted for his friends and family—and the privacy with which he addresses you, Nunokawa’s book would make wonderfully cathartic reading for someone going through loss or loneliness or depression. The language has a calming effect, even an encouraging one—“I think most of us are getting on (and along) with our story as best we can,” he writes on September 2012. At the end of the aforementioned entry on allusions, Nunokawa quotes (proving that his referential reach is wide) from When Harry Met Sally: “Anyway, it’s about old friends.” That’s about right. After finishing Note Book, that’s what Nunokawa feels like, an old friend. He is a smart, soulful companion for anyone who might need one.
The World Is On Fire: Scrap, Treasure, and Songs of Apocalypse, Joni Tevis (Milkweed)
Of course, every writer here is an essayist—I use the term here only for Joni Tevis because she practices the form in its most contemporary, artful sense. Employing techniques from fiction and the lyricism of poetry, many of Tevis’s pieces fall under the category of so-called “braided” non-fiction, which is really just a way to say that multiple subjects are explored, and intercut, in one essay. But the connection between the sometimes extremely disparate subjects isn’t explicitly made but is instead intimated by proximity.
In Tevis’s collection The World Is On Fire, for instance, she skillfully weaves together in a single piece the original atomic testing sites in Nevada, Buddy Holly, and the John Wayne classic The Searchers (the film from which Holly stole the line, “That’ll be the day”). In “Somebody to Love,” Tevis explores the complexities of motherhood and the voice of Freddie Mercury. This style confronts the reader with its form, as it makes them wonder how the parts will all fit together and look for it as they read. When the answers surprise or move, the whole functions beautifully, as it does in the essays I just mentioned, but sometimes Tevis’s comparisons stretch credulity, and the prose seems a bit affected as a result. And certain recurring images (like the atomic test sites and the tourists who visited to watch the explosions) give the sections unity but also feel a bit redundant.
But there is some great writing here. Tevis has an uncanny eye for unexpected details. The ersatz houses and poignantly placed mannequins of Doom Town, the village constructed to be blown up in the desert in the 50s, are made out of material from all over the US, a fact which Tevis renders like this: “You can say the whole country pitches in,” which is beautifully true and metaphorically implicating. I loved the opening essay on Sarah Winchester—who, after the death of her husband and son, was convinced by a medium to build a house and “never stop, lest that had taken her daughter come for her”—and the eccentric “The Scissorman”—about a man with the unlikely profession of a traveling scissor-sharpener—and most of all, “What the Body Knows”—a gorgeous narrative of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Tevis’s emerging motherhood.
THE LITERARY CRITICS
Think Again, Stanley Fish (Princeton University Press)
You probably remember Stanley Fish from your college freshmen English course. Fish’s writing in books like Is There a Text in This Class? have become staples of introductory theory. His whole thing is an idea called “interpretive communities,” which basically contends that all texts are culturally constructed and thus only understood via those cultures and their contexts. It’s an extension of “reader-response criticism,” which considers (and even places significant importance on) the reader’s active interpretation as part creator—rather than simply the facilitator of—a book’s meaning. One common critique (which is putting it euphemistically; some critics out there really fucking hate this guy) of Fish and his communities is that its analytical strategy necessarily incorporates authorial intent (because, after all, the writer is also a part of the culture about which they write), which, again, if you were an English major, you’ll know is huge Lit Crit no-no.
In his latest book, Think Again, Fish expands his scope from literature to damn-near everything under the sun. Collected from his New York Times columns, this volume has Fish responding to political and cultural stimuli, current events and topical conundrums—all in a (sometimes frustrating) tone of devil’s advocacy. He investigates myriad subjects rather like a professor coaxing his students toward wider, more informed comprehension. Much of the time this approach results in informative and thought-provoking writing, as when he recounts hearing the Irish novelist Colm Tóibín on the radio and growing annoyed at Tóibín’s unwillingness to engage with callers who wanted to bond over what they saw as the author’s autobiography. Tóibín, in fact, “ran away from the emotions they were offering him.” It isn’t until Tóibín explains that his aim is to make stories work—as in, function successfully—and not to achieve any specific effects that Fish finally understands Tóibín’s reluctance. “It’s the craft that is important,” Fish realizes, “not the emotions it may have appropriated along the way,” and that what the radio host and “her listeners were proffering was a rationale for the act that was not internal to demands.” In other words, even if an artist claimed the lofty goal of “making the world a better place,” they’d still have to put the demands of craft first; otherwise the vehicle through which their world-bettering ambitions might travel would never be seen, or read, or heard, let alone interpreted and appreciated, and their mission will have failed before it even began.
It’s also refreshing to read a white, professorial intellectual in his 70s convincingly defend the misunderstood (and reductively named) practice of “identity politics,” i.e., voting for a candidate because they share your race, gender, ethnicity, etc., regardless of the candidate’s political views. This would be a poor way to participate in democracy, yes, but this is not at all what anyone does. The very definition, in fact, offered by opponents assumes the rationale stops at the commonality, but of course it doesn’t. “It is based,” Fish writes,
on the assumption (itself resting on history and observation) that because of his or her race or ethnicity or gender a candidate might pursue an agenda that would advance the interests a voter is committed to. Not only is there nothing wrong with such a calculation—it is both rational and considered—I don’t see that there is an alternative to voting on the basis of interest.
What Fish doesn’t say—but I will—is that most objections to “identity politics” (I hate the term but can’t think of a fitting alternative, mostly because “identity politics” basically just fucking means “politics”) stem from racist, misogynistic xenophobia, ostensibly arguing for the primacy of “human qualities” over race or gender or anything else (the dubious notion of “color-blindness” and its variants) but stupidly forgetting how important race and gender are to those very qualities.
It is this sort of reluctance that sometimes makes Fish’s approach frustrating. He often won’t come out and say what is really there, or at least what’s clearly on his mind. And other times Fish doesn’t engage with arguments so much as narrate them, a reminder that “playing devil’s advocate” with an issue is sometimes just a euphemism for summarizing it. But mostly, Think Again is the work of a formidable intelligence with an easygoing style, readable and accessible and thoughtful and frequently illuminating.
Moral Agents: Eight Twentieth-Century American Writers, Edward Mendelson (New York Review Books)
Like John Lahr, Edward Mendelson embarks, in Moral Agents, in a similarly Johnsonian enterprise, albeit a decidedly less ambitious one—a mere eight writers. His previous book, The Things That Matter, focused on seven novels by women; here his subjects are all men: Lionel Trilling, Dwight Macdonald, Alfred Kazin, William Maxwell, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, W.H. Auden, and Frank O’Hara. The result of a series he wrote for The New York Review of Books, the essays in Moral Agents are immensely readable and edifying, if not always revelatory. The chapter on Alfred Kazin is especially good. He provides a wonderful insight into the seemingly odd fact that, despite Kazin’s reputation while he lived and wrote, his criticism hasn’t remained influential. “Literary criticism,” Mendelson writes,
can be influential and memorable when it performs the double function of history and aphorism. As history it tells the unique story of a single book, author, or era; as aphorism it offers a general principle through which to understand any multitude of books, authors, and eras. The greatest critics—from Samuel Johnson through Virginia Woolf, William Empson, and beyond—could combine history and aphorism because each had a cohesive ethical vision that made sense of the connections between persons and general principles, and between literature and life.
Kazin’s work, Mendelson observes, “was almost all history.” This is an astute explanation for Kazin’s fading status, but it’s also a succinct and humane definition of literary criticism itself.
Most of these men were pretty rotten in their personal lives—abusive to spouses, dismissive of children, prone to that charming mix of alcoholism and self-aggrandizement—so the choice of grouping them together under a banner of morality seems like an ironic and unfunny joke, but Mendelson does it earnestly. Morality is not about, he writes, “prohibitions, social codes, or supernatural decrees” but rather “the effect of one’s thoughts and acts, for good or ill, on others and oneself” and “the inner logic of actions and consequences.” Viewed from this secular definition, one can see how Mendelson applies it to the work of his subjects, so maybe the issue isn’t in any of the individual pieces but in their totality. Lionel Trilling and Saul Bellow and W.H. Auden, et al, were unique and powerful creative forces, but they typify an anachronistic archetype—the singular artist as hero, as father, as moral guidance—no matter what they each thought of themselves. Mendelson is a fantastic writer and critic, and I recommend Moral Agents wholeheartedly, especially on a piece-by-piece basis, though I think a more accurate title, considering the ethical bait-and-switch some of them pulled on their dedicated readers, would be Moral Double Agents.
There Is Simply Too Much to Think About, Saul Bellow (Viking)
In his essay on Bellow, Mendelson speaks of two versions of the Nobel laureate, a “vulnerable younger one” and an “older and harder” one who eventually overtook him. You can see his transition from passionate youth to curmudgeonly coot (however cliché that narrative has become) in plain view in There Is Simply Too Much to Think About, first because the nonfiction compiled here is presented in mostly chronological order, but mostly because Bellow’s point of view shifted so sharply. Take the stark contrast between his 1957 essay “Distractions of a Fiction Writer” and his 2000 piece “Literature: The Next Chapter.” In ’57 Bellow was in his early 40s, drunk no doubt on the recent successes of The Adventures of Augie March and Seize the Day, and filled with passion for the necessity of fiction, despite the myriad distractions and arguments of obsolescence the novelist contends with. He compares scholars and critics to “property owners”:
They have their lots surveyed. Here the property begins and there it ends. A conservative instinct in them—which every lover of order will recognize and respect—resists extension, calls for limits. Besides, it’s awfully fine to be an epigone. It tickles one so in the self-esteem.
Young Bellow’s answer to the question, “Why shall I write this next thing?” is simple and stalwart: “Because it is necessary.”
By 2000, however, Bellow succumbed to the oft-heard (and, to my mind, much-disproven) idea that technology has overcome interpersonal dynamics and general creative interest. “It makes one oddly despondent,” he writes, “to think how great our reliance on electronic devices has become.” And he predictably waxes nostalgic about the literacy of “readers of his generation,” who “were on closer terms with Conrad’s Captain MacWhirr, Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, Lewis’s Babbitt or Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley than with their own cousins or classmates.” At 85, Bellow had adopted that “conservative instinct” he so derided critics for possessing.
Of course, this being Bellow, there is loads of great writing here, even when he’s espousing problematic ideologies. His essays on other writers—Philip Roth, Ralph Ellison, Shakespeare—are among his finest, as are some of the beautiful meditations on place—especially, obviously, Chicago, but also Madrid, Paris, and Vermont—which evoke these geographies as well as any novel. It is a fine collection for anyone interested in Bellow but also, less overtly, the progress of American fiction since WWII. It’s a fascinating document, to be sure, with some beautiful writing and some very ugly writing, and it’ll be up to us, I guess, to determine which of the two gets closer to the truth.
THE POETRY CRITIC
The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar, Helen Vendler (Harvard University Press)
The great tragedy of poetry’s unpopularity is, of course, all the great poets that are not being read. To this I would add as an addendum an additional consequence, no less tragic: that people are not reading Helen Vendler. She is, without a doubt, the finest poetry critic I’ve ever read. Her writing is compelling and elegant, and her interpretations lend themselves, in Vendler’s hands, to larger points about life and living. Vendler doesn’t just understand poetry; she understands life.
Vendler—who beat the odds and battled the patriarchy to become a distinguished Harvard professor—wrote numerous books on numerous poets, reviewed poetry (exclusively, she insists; once she reviewed Mary McCarthy’s Birds of America and “felt such guilt at falsifying my competence that I never again consented to write on fiction”) and established herself as one of the preeminent poetry critics in America. Now, at 82, Vendler presents The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar, a remarkable collection of essays on poetry. The introduction, which traces Vendler’s life in criticism, and the title essay, adapted from her 2004 Jefferson Lecture, are worth the price of the book alone. But add in astute pieces on Allen Ginsberg, T.S. Eliot, Jorie Graham, and Wallace Stevens, as well as takes on lesser-known poets like Amy Clampitt and Lucie Brock-Broido, and The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar becomes an absolute treasure. Just read Helen Vendler.
And Yet… Essays, Christopher Hitchens (Simon & Schuster)
Along with Helen Vendler, Christopher Hitchens shares the distinction of being the best writer on this list. If Lahr and Mendelson attempt Johnsonian feats, Hitchens may as well be his reincarnation. This is not to say, of course, that Hitchens was the most correct or that his remarkable talent elevates his opinions above the others. Like the great Doctor, Hitchens could be, among other things, misogynistic, condescending, pedantic, hyperbolic, and crass.
But I feel compelled to remind readers of an important aspect of Hitchens and his writing that mostly gets overshadowed by his lesser qualities—and that is his humanity. A journalist to his core, inhabiting numerous war-torn geographies to get his story, Hitchens also managed intimate access to the pulse (and pulp) of American government, in his adopted hometown of Washington. And Yet… captures his insider’s familiarity with the worlds and the people he described. But more importantly, what motivates much of his work is his passionate commitment to human rights. A harsh critic of America’s dithering response to “the racist Arab-Muslim death squads in Darfur,” he based a large part of his much-maligned support for George W. Bush’s war in Iraq (or, at least, the removal of Saddam Hussein) on George, Sr.’s betrayal of the 200,000 slaughtered Kurdish people in 1991. Hitchens spent much of the 90s advocating for the Kurds and hoping for a stable Iraq, so his investment in the cause, and thus his support for any action attempting to right it, is attributable more to his compassion than his conservatism.
And Yet… is still stunningly good, because Hitchens was so often stunningly good. The long opening essay on Che Guevara is fascinating, and his anti-Christmas rant “Bah, Humbug” is hilarious and pointed. As always, he writes excellently about writers—the enduring integrity of Orwell, of course, the deplorable life of V.S Naipaul, the “intense dignity and courage” of Joan Didion, and the genius of Salman Rushdie (Hitchens was one of those critics who was allowed to review, and highly praise, his friends)—and scathingly of religion, though here that chord is plucked a little lightly, by Hitchens’s standards. And it’s great to see “My Red-State Odyssey,” his drolly brilliant (but sort of depressing) trip through the Deep South, included here, too.
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These last few months with these collections (4,554 pages!) have been an exhilarating tour through art and artists of every stripe, through an enormous array of subjects and view points. There is, sadly, one predictable throughline in all of this: men who brutalize women while garnering acclaim for their wisdom. How tragic it is, really, that so much of our (impossibly rich and diverse and complex and humane) literary culture originates in the cruel minds of contemptible men; because for every masterpiece they wrote there are women whose voices—and in some cases very existences—were muted or erased. The value placed solely on the art by academic literary analysis—that is, analyses of texts that wholly exclude biographical content and thus any ethical qualms that might arise from such inclusion—seems pathetically insufficient as consolation for the suffering of these women.
But there are also many positive connections here, too. The echoes one hears throughout of names and places and books and ideas—in a prodigiously rich landscape somehow certain things find themselves permeating everything. Like Nunokawa’s “old friends,” they never really leave us and may return unannounced at any moment. We are, in other words, all connected, part of the same precarious web, for good or for ill. To amend Saul Bellow’s title a bit, there is simply too much to write about—and yet certain questions recur, a similar curiosity pervades: what art matters, and why? Why is this work more valuable than that work? What is really going on underneath the art? And what does that tell us about our culture, ourselves? What version of the “truth” does history tell? And what is the real truth? Is there a real truth? These writers prove that under the surface, supposedly anodyne cultural artifacts and figures reveal stark realities. Jessica Hopper shows how the R. Kelly trial—treated as parody in the media—is less about the actions of an unbelievably self-aggrandizing pop star and more indicative of the infuriatingly tragic fact that “nobody matters less to our society than young black women. Nobody.” This is the value of criticism, of journalism, and of nonfiction: it aims to locate the unvarnished, the messy, and the concealed truths that are often edited down or smoothed out of the common perception.
Many of the pieces in these essay collections were written in reaction to external stimuli (a book or album to be reviewed, an event to be contextualized), and often written with a deadline, and I think it is this timeliness that makes the resulting books so illuminating and revelatory. They not only capture an intellectual moment of the world, but also probably have the better perspective on it. In his review of Arthur Schlesinger’s Journals: 1952-2000 (which is surprisingly positive considering that at one point Hitchens was on Schlesinger’s short ‘enemies list’), Hitchens writes, “Thus we learn again that what people set down day to day is of greater value than what they try to synthesize retrospectively into a grand sweep or theory.” Reading these alternately challenging and frustrating and rewarding and brilliant collections, I am inclined to agree.