The critic James Wood begins his book “How Fiction Works” with this little dictum: “The house of fiction has many windows, but only two or three doors.” The same basic tenet can be applied, I think, to literary criticism. There are only so many ways one can write about a book. There is the New Critics-style textual approach: a no-frills method that sticks to the text itself, analyzing its properties and techniques wholly from within. One may take the historical stance (think of New Historicist critic Stephen Greenblatt) — that is, telling the history of the work itself, its cultural peculiarities, as well as its influence on subsequent generations, in order to gain insight into the time in which it was written. Also, a writer can enumerate his or her own personal experience with a book, a category Joyce Carol Oates referred to as “bibliomemoir”: how it changed, challenged or charged them. A writer can parody a novel or play or poem, employing the same techniques and stylistics, often for the sake of poking fun of the author’s quirks. Then, finally, there is the extrapolative technique, which is predicated on the idea that literature can matter to our everyday lives, or that books can be used to demonstrate principles of other intellectual discourses, like those Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture books that all end with … and Philosophy. Continue reading…
My 3rd annual Books About Books piece over at LitHub!
Books about books might seem like an insular category designed only for those predisposed to such subjects…but it’s also an important genre. Our writers can tell us not only how another writer may have accomplished X or Y achievements, they can also reveal, by their very focus and attention, those authors whose work has influenced them and others as they’ve navigated the literary landscape. That is, their choices alone count for something. Continue reading…
Ordinary Light by Tracy K. Smith | Northwest Review
Tracy K. Smith’s exquisite memoir Ordinary Light primarily traces three narrative threads—her relationships with her mother, with religion, and with herself—which are all tied together by Smith’s discovery of poetry. Raised in a Baptist family, Smith struggled through much of her life to resolve the ever-growing conflict between the certainty of her mother’s beliefs and the ambiguity of the real world. She found a kind of happy medium with poetry and went on to publish three volumes of it, the latest of which, 2012’s Life on Mars, won a Pulitzer Prize.
A Portrait of the Critic as a Young Man | The Millions
Here is James Wood’s newest work, The Nearest Thing to Life, taken from a series of lectures given at Brandies and the British Museum. This book, which manages to be even slimmer than How Fiction Works, also manages to be even better. The Nearest Thing to Life is as close as we’ll ever get to a manifesto from the British-born New Yorker critic. Contained in the book’s 134 pages is a passionate defense of criticism, a memoir of Wood’s early life and influences, and an insightful study of the meaning of fiction.