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)
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
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
by Knut Hamsun, trans. Sverre Lyngstad

by Knut Hamsun, trans. Sverre Lyngstad

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
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
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)
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