Sentences — May 23, 2008, 3:13 pm

Weekend Read: “A critical mass of critics”

Quite a few serious readers and writers are worried that we are suffering, as a culture, from an absence of intellectually engaged critical writing on fiction. Under the umbrella title “An Egg in Return,” and occasioned by a conversation between James Wood and Jonathan Franzen at Harvard last month, I offered three posts this week (1,2,3) that circle the issue.

Here, though, in this week’s Weekend Read, I hope to present evidence that handwringing over quantitative and qualitative shortfalls of intellectually serious literary criticism is misplaced.

The twenty-five links below will take you to twenty-five critical essays all published during the first three weeks of this month, May 2008. All are medium to long-form journalistic literary criticism in English devoted to new releases.

Of the twenty-five, twenty are reviews of novels; four are reviews of biographies of novelists, poets, or critics who had truck with fiction or criticism; and one is an essay on the state of the “man of letters,” occasioned by a book on the subject.

The essays are drawn from eight publications—The New York Review of Books; The New Yorker; The New Republic; The London Review of Books; The Times Literary Supplement; The Nation; The Atlantic; and Bookforum. Anyone with access to the Internet can read them—largely for free. 18 of the 25 essays are available in full text at no charge. Five, from the LRB, require a $42 annual subscription; one, from The Nation, requires an $18 annual subscription; and one from The New York Review of Books requires a $69 subscription. All three grant subscribers full access to their respective archives (as does that of Harper’s at $19.97/year).

The total word count of these twenty-five essays is about 85,000—the length of the novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I consider that amount to be representative of the minimum quantity of serious efforts at literary criticism of fiction available in the mainstream each month. They add up to a great deal more—a million words a year—than most anyone can honestly say they are reading.

To those who would remind me that the problem, now as ever, has never been quantitative; who would suggest that what we are lacking, as Cynthia Ozick put it in these pages, is “a critical mass of critics” capable of producing not pronouncements on quality but “philosophies”; and who would claim that we are finding, as Laura Miller put it in Salon, “no critical movements evident today”: I would insist, to anyone who might take the time to read the variously rigorous and intelligent essays below—not to say the mass of them that accumulates over a year, year in and out—that the “mass of critics” can not be said to have been gauged, much less mulled, with great thoroughness. And I would further insist, therefore, that a quite powerful “critical movement [is] evident today”—a movement to dismiss the existence of intelligent criticism out of hand.

For while the depth and fullness of the following accountings can be questioned on an individual basis, what is more difficult to question, if one actually reads journalistic literary criticism with regularity, is the extent to which complaints about its broad inadequacy are lately far more frequent and frantic than are measured responses to the glut of thoughtful essays we do have, beginning with those below.

The New York Review of Books (May 1, May 15, and May 29, 2008)
Review Books discussed
“In Priceland”
by Michael Chabon
Lush Life
by Richard Price (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
“Ezra Conquers London”
by Frank Kermode
Ezra Pound: Poet: A Portrait of the Man and His Work, Volume 1: The Young Genius, 1885–1920
by A. David Moody (Oxford University Press)
“Youth!”
by Joyce Carol Oates
All the Sad Young Literary Men
by Keith Gessen (Viking)
“Displaced Passions”,
by Sarah Kerr
Unaccustomed Earth
by Jhumpa Lahiri (Knopf)
“Giddy & Malevolent”
by Francine Prose
Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky: A London Trilogy
by Patrick Hamilton, intro. Susanna Moore (New York Review Books)

The Slaves of Solitude
by Patrick Hamilton, with an introduction by David Lodge (New York Review Books)

Hangover Square: A Story of Darkest Earl’s Court
by Patrick Hamilton (Europa)

The New Yorker (May 5 and May 26, 2008)
Review Books discussed
“Beyond a Boundary”
by James Wood
Netherland
by Joseph O’Neill (Pantheon)
“After Empire”
by Ruth Franklin
Things Fall Apart
by Chinua Achebe (Vintage)
“Relative Strangers”
by John Updike
Portrait of a Marriage
by Andrew Sean Greer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
The Atlantic (May 2008)
Review Books discussed
“The Last Laugh”
by Joseph O’Neill
The Complete Novels,
by Flann O’Brien (Everyman’s Library)
“Arrested Development”
by Christopher Hitchens
Enemies of Promise
by Cyril Connolly (Chicago)
The Nation (dated May 26, 2008)
Review Books discussed
“The Age of the Wooden Spoon”
by Benjamin Lytal
Hunger
by Knut Hamsun, trans. Sverre Lyngstad

Mysteries
by Knut Hamsun, trans. Sverre Lyngstad

Pan
by Knut Hamsun, trans. Sverre Lyngstad

Growth of the Soil
by Knut Hamsun, trans. Sverre Lyngstad.

“The Counter-Family”
by Chris Lehmann
The Rain Before It Falls
by Jonathan Coe
The New Republic (May 7 and May 28, 2008)
Review Books discussed
“Novel or Nothing”
by Cynthia Ozick
The Journey Abandoned: The Unfinished Novel
by Lionel Trilling, ed. Geraldine Murphy (Columbia University Press)
“Depravity’s Rainbow”
by Ruth Franklin
Beautiful Children
by Charles Bock (Random House)
BOOKFORUM (April/May 2008)
Review Books discussed
“Great Dictators”
by Michael Gorra
Dictation
by Cynthia Ozick
“Inner-City Muse”
by James Gibbons
Lush Life
by Richard Price
The London Review of Books (May 8 and May 22, 2008)
Review Books discussed
“Art Is a Cupboard!”
by Tony Wood
Today I Wrote Nothing: The selected writings of Daniil Kharms ed./trans. Matvei Yankelevic
“The Audience Throws Vegetables”
by Colin Burrow
The Enchantress of Florence
by Salman Rushdie
“Decrepit Lit”
by Lorna Scott Fox
Deaf Sentence
by David Lodge
“Crabby, Prickly, Bitter, Harsh”
by Michael Wood
War and Peace
by Leo Tolstoy, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
“Degoogled”
by Joanna Biggs
All the Sad Young Literary Men
by Keith Gessen
“All There Needs to Be Said”
by August Kleinzahler
The Poem of a Life: A biography of Louis Zukofsky
by Mark Scroggins
“Dead Not Deid”
by James Meek
Kieron Smith, Boy
by James Kelman
The Times Literary Supplement (May 21, 2008)
Review Books discussed
“V. S. Naipaul, master and monster”
by A. N. Wilson
The World Is What It Is: The authorised biography of V. S. Naipaul
by Patrick French (Picador)
“The Man of Letters vs. the Academy”
by John Gross
Common Reading: Critics, historians, publics
by Stefan Collini (Oxford University Press)
Share
Single Page

More from Wyatt Mason:

From the October 2014 issue

You Are Not Alone Across Time

Using Sophocles to treat PTSD

From the February 2010 issue

The untamed

Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome

Sentences May 1, 2009, 2:41 pm

Weekend Read: The Last Post

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

December 2014

Gateway to Freedom

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Guns and Poses

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Christmas in Prison

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Poison Apples

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Growing Up

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Beeper World·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The beeper, for a certain kind of Miami teenager in the Nineties, was an essential evolutionary adaptation.”
Photograph by Curran Hatleberg
Article
Hammer Island·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The place could have sprung from someone’s jealous dream about white people.”
Photograph by Emily Stein
Article
Growing Up·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The best coming-of-age stories have a hole in the middle. They pretend to be about knowledge, but they are usually about grasping, long after it could be of any use, one’s irretrievable ignorance.”
Photograph by Ben Pier
Article
Guns and Poses·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“‘It’s open shopping,’ he said. ‘A warehouse. The whole of Libya.’”
Map by Mike Reagan
Article
Christmas in Prison·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Just so you motherfuckers know, I’ll be spending Christmas with my family, eating a good meal, and you’ll all be here, right where you belong.”
Photographer unknown. Artwork courtesy Alyse Emdur

Amount that President Obama has added to America’s “brand value” according to the Nation Brands Index:

$2,100,000,000,000

A study suggested that the health effects of exposure to nuclear radiation at Chernobyl were no worse than ill health resulting from smoking and normal urban air pollution.

A Utah woman named Cameo Crispi pleaded guilty to having drunkenly attempted to burn down her ex-boyfriend’s house by igniting bacon on his kitchen stove.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

In Praise of Idleness

By

I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today