Now, six years on, Ward Farnsworth has produced a sequel (a term associated more with Hollywood franchises than with manuals on literary technique). Farnsworth’s Classical English Metaphor duplicates its predecessor in approach and structure and voice and directness, and for all intents and purposes is just as fun and accessible, too. But Farnsworth’s latest subject, the metaphor, makes his follow-up better and more insightful than the first one, but also, in some ways, less useful, a fact that has less to do with Farnsworth’s skill and more to do with the metaphor’s nuanced utility. It is not that Farnsworth doesn’t do an excellent job illuminating the various ways we use language to compare things — sometimes the only means of apt description — or that his examples are less instructive or applicable. Rather, it is that the metaphor is simply employed far less often than the enormous toolbox of rhetoric, and, when it is used, its power stems less from its structure and more from the lucidity and the inventiveness and the clarity of the comparison. Metaphors have a quality of “wrongness,” as Walker Percy put it in 1975’s The Message in the Bottle (a book way too recent to have assumed Farnsworth has read it), and “that its beauty often seems proportionate to its wrongness or outlandishness.”
Anyway, so I spent my Superbowl Sunday organizing the most important section of any critic’s collection: literary criticism and biography. Not only is this my favorite shit to read, but I also refer to them so often that they’re also the most practically necessary. After I finished, I posted a photo of the beautifully and temporarily full shelves (I’ve already pulled like six books off that I’m using for current pieces) on Twitter, and someone asked me if I had any particular favorites. I wasn’t at home when I got the tweet, so to even consider responding at the time was unthinkable. I pondered for a few seconds before immediately becoming overwhelmed. When I returned later and stared at the shelves, it occurred to me that I’ve been asked this question quite a few times. Perhaps this is because as a self-identifying literary critic there isn’t much else for people to ask me—this field doesn’t exactly make for the most riveting party talk. But whatever the reason, I thought I’d put together a list of the criticism that I most admire and to which I repeatedly refer. This is, of course, an extremely limited list, taken exclusively from books I own. Also for the sake of my sanity, I excluded all single-subject biographies and criticism on film or music; only fiction, poetry, and drama. Memoirs counted only if they directly involve other writers and/or the literary landscape of the era. It is in no way meant to be a list of the world’s indispensible literary criticism, only my own, and only so far.
The Door by Magda Szabó | Northwest Review of Books
Emerence is a housekeeper for a writer named Magda, and the two women couldn’t be any more different. That sentence, in all its ordinariness, could legitimately stand as a plot description for Magda Szabó’s subtle and fascinating novel The Door. The events that take place are dramatic at times, to be sure, but they function more as isolated incidents rather than a narrative whole. Emerence is the through-line; she is the connective tissue that brings together the disparate parts to make a body. She is—like Gatsby, Ahab, or Daisy Miller—what I call a study character, an important figure that a narrator is unable to fully understand but who is also unalterably enmeshed in their psyche. Emerence, in all her extremely fine details, her many contra-dictions, her utter singularity as a character, is one of the most compelling people I’ve met in recent fiction. She is a classic; she is a magical, mysterious presence that makes The Door a masterpiece.
Infinite Jest 20th Anniversary Edition!
I’m quoted and named on the back cover! What an honor! David Foster Wallace is one of my biggest heroes and Infinite Jest was especially influential to me. This is one of the great thrills of my life.
I’M IN THE FUCKING NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW!!! I CAN’T BELIEVE MY LIFE!!
“For the last 20 years, Helle Helle’s novels and short stories have made her a star in her native Denmark, where she regularly receives awards and acclaim. Denmark is also where, according to her biography, Helle “lives in a forest.” What a fittingly magical dwelling for Helle, who — judging from her first novel to be translated into English, “This Should Be Written in the Present Tense” — has enchanting gifts as a storyteller.” (More.)
As I write this, I can spot on my shelves the following books: On Writing, Zen in the Art of the Writing, The Art of Fiction, The Art of the Novel, Aspects of the Novel, 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, This Year You Write Your Novel, Reading Like a Writer, and How Fiction Works. And I’ve read every damn one of them. Though some were revelatory—especially the first, by Stephen King, and the last, by James Wood—most of them failed to improve my writing, though they sure as hell improved my reading, and some left me discouraged and overwhelmed. Novelists and critics wrote these books, practitioners of the art, who, it mostly turns out, are terrifically adept at elucidating narrative strategies but less skilled at demonstrating how to put those techniques into practice. And often you’re left not with literary ability but a sense of awe at just how great the great writers are.
O Muse, Where is Wisława Szymborska’s Teeming Crowd? | Literary Hub
Last year saw the publication of Map: Collected and Last Poems, an extraordinary and vital summation of Szymborska’s decidedly modest output, and although critics positively and even sometimes excitedly reviewed it, the book didn’t sell tremendously well (and of course nothing like the 120,000 first edition of View with a Grain of Sand) and wasn’t noted in all those Best of 2015 lists. What a shame. Not only is Szymborska a major poet of the last half century but Map, as a reading experience, is wonderful, illuminating and enriching, a reminder that poetry can be direct, unadorned and still deeply moving. I cannot complain, of course, that Szymborska’s work is hopelessly obscure (because it isn’t) but I can be a tad disappointed that such a rare poet and such a brilliant, warm, and lovely book didn’t find more readers in 2015.
Writers at Work | Literary Hub
On 12 books and 4,500 pages of essay collections from Jessica Hopper, Richard Hell, Christopher Hitchens, Saul Bellow, Lillian Ross, John Lahr, Joni Tevis, Greil Marcus, Helen Vendler, Jeff Nunokawa, Stanley Fish, and Edward Mendelson.
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.
In Praise of the New Modernists |
More recently—say, in the last 20 years or so—numerous so-called postmodern novels have contained this distinctly non-postmodern quality—not that the characters feel so much as the reader. The cumulative effect isn’t necessarily a fully fleshed-out character but a fully emotional experience. Think of Jonathan Safran Foer’s strong sentiments in the face of the Holocaust and 9/11; think of the alligator-wrestling family at the heart of Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!; think of the way Ali Smith works her linguistic magic in order to convey the complexities of love and relationships; or the heart-breaking wallop of David Levithan’s The Lover’s Dictionary; think of Reif Larsen’s I am Radar, of Zadie Smith’s NW, of Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife. Can these books truly be considered postmodern when the most prevalent aspect is emotion rather than thought?
Genoa (1965) by Paul Metcalf | Northwest Review
We as a nation would do well to follow the lead of Paul Metcalf, an experimental writer who died in 1999. His 1965 novel Genoa, reissued by Coffee House Press to celebrate its 50th anniversary, contends with exactly these kinds of forces. The present action of the novel is pretty bare bones: Michael Mills, a man with a medical degree but who can’t bring himself to practice, sifts through the detritus of his attic while his children watch television downstairs. That’s really it. Throughout, Michael quotes Melville and Christopher Columbus for various reasons and in various ways; a good chunk of the book is made up of quotations. But the novel is really about the convergence of three threads: 1. Paul Metcalf’s relation to Herman Melville (he was Metcalf’s great-grandfather), 2. Columbus’s relation to America, and 3. the character Michael’s relation to his brother Carl, who was executed for murder. These three notions intertwine and correspond in complex ways throughout the novel.
In Praise of Unlinked Story Collections | Literary Hub
But what I want to praise are collections in which the stories are unrelated, in which the characters are distinct, and the whole of the book isn’t a perfectly cohesive unit but is instead a messy depiction of numerous lives. Of course we assume that writers and publishers spend a lot of time organizing each story of a collection; we believe they try to create a thematic arc, a rhythm to the order, which hopefully makes the reading experience more consistent and enjoyable. But here’s the thing: this matters to me not at all. I do not need a collection to feel “cohesive,” nor do I spend too much time considering the order. Rather, what I adore is precisely the opposite: a rattling journey from plot to plot, from character to character, from idea to idea.
Just Who is This Oscar Wilde Person, Anyway? | The Georgia Review, Summer ’15
My essay review of three books on Oscar Wilde––David M. Friedman’s Wilde in America: Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Modern Celebrity; Roy Morris Jr.’s Declaring His Genius: Oscar Wilde in North America; and Antony Edmonds’ Oscar Wilde’s Scandalous Summer: The 1894 Worthing Holiday and the Aftermath––appears in the Summer 2015 of The Georgia Review. Buy a copy here.
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.
Satin Island by Tom McCarthy | The Rumpus
On the cover of Tom McCarthy’s new novel, a number of words appear crossed out. “A manifesto,” “an essay,” “a report,” “a confession,” and “a treatise” are all struck through, leaving only the words “a novel” un-slashed. But none of these terms quite captures what Satin Island really is: a polemic.
Saint Friend by Carl Adamshick | Tupelo Quarterly
If someone had the gumption to go around and ask everyday Americans to name a poem, nearly all of them would certainly supply an answer. One might hear, as a reply, Poe’s “The Raven” or Hughes’s “A Dream Deferred” or Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” But if this same pollster were to ask these citizens to name a single volume of poetry, a collection, how many would be able to come up with a title?
Late Lights by Kara Weiss | PANK
Late Lights is a book of stories so connected, they basically make up a novel. But at 123 pages, it’s more like a novella in stories, a combination of two types of fiction that don’t ordinarily sell well. Story collections, the popular publishing wisdom goes, only interest MFA students, while novellas, apparently, interest no one. That Weiss not only published the book but also won two Next Generation Indie Book Awards makes the rarity of her achievement all the more atypical.
All the Dumb Young Literary Stand-ins | The Millions
I was reminded of Tom Perrotta’s Bad Haircut and Junot Díaz’s Yunior stories in Drown and This Is How You Lose Her. And then going back to Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty in On the Road and further back to Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Sad Young Men (and Keith Gessen’s Sad Young Literary Men). Essentially, these are all just stories about young men doing stupid shit, or young men not doing enough good shit, or young men doing good shit in the wrong way.
Crude Sketches Done in Quick Succession by Andrew Brininstool | Necessary Fiction
Sometimes Brininstool’s stories recall Tom Perrotta, the master of suburban ennui, while at other times there is the undeniable influence of George Saunders. You get the feeling of a novice (though very talented) writer finding his voice. The book works better in individual stories than it does as a whole. The two best pieces here are worth the cover price, and it seems no coincidence that they do not feature callow, equivocating men.
The David Foster Wallace Reader | The Millions
The argument here is going to be that David Foster Wallace not only wrote about literature, lobsters, cruises, Roger Federer, grammar and John McCain, but he also wrote about writing about literature, lobster, cruises, etc. In nearly every published essay, Wallace first established the parameters of his project, the limitations of his assignment and even the crass, subtextual thesis of all book reviews. He dissected the very idea of reviewing a book, or covering a festival, or interviewing a radio host. In other words, Wallace wrote metanonfiction.
How to Be Both by Ali Smith | The Rumpus
How To Be Both is, after The Accidental, The First Person and Other Stories, There but for the, and Artful, Smith’s fifth masterpiece in a row. Her inimitable writing sneaks into you with its deceptive readability, but it’s her radiating intelligence that stays with you. Her mind works wonders on a theme, able to find lovely and profound connections in seemingly anything. She’s a passionately caring writer whose emotional generosity spills out into her pages, trickling out of her books like an overflowing champagne flute.
Twenty Poems That Could Save America by Tony Hoagland | The Rumpus
These essays form a slowly accumulating argument for the Hoagland’s vision of poetic efficacy. He is itemizing the major components of successful (and enlightening and potentially useful) poems in order to establish the premises for his larger argument. Like many essay collections, Twenty Poems can be viewed as a subtle manifesto, a whisper to action. If that’s so, then what is his argument? What action does he want us to take?
If There’s Any Truth in a Northbound Train by Ryan Werner | PANK
Leyner in My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist relished in pointing to the fabricated nature of fiction. Werner, though, has a different intention: his stories portray a particular group of young people in a particular part of the Midwest in a particular age. These stories are about the moment, and ultimately, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Fortress by Kristina Marie Darling | Tarpaulin Sky
Fortress is an intensely effective work that demonstrates the emotional power of literary subversion. It shows how postmodern techniques can work in concert with sincerity and truth. The pages in the book are mostly blank; only the notes survive. And, often—in life and in love—that’s all we get, when all is said and done.
The Children Act by Ian McEwan | Slant Magazine
“McEwan writes of many things, but in form he oscillates between two poles: the short, parable-like novel (On Chesil Beach, Amsterdam) and longer, more layered tales (Atonement, Saturday, even Solar, though it’s a comedy). The Children Act is of the first category, and at 221 pages, it’s a tightly knit piece of fiction, an elegant examination of a complicated problem.”
E.E. Cummings: A Life | The Georgia Review, Fall 2014
I review Susan Cheever’s E.E. Cummings: A Life in the newest issue of The Georgia Review! Cummings was a major influence on my younger self––probably the writer who inspired me to start writing. Later, I was the Program Director at Forest Hills Cemetery, where Cummings is buried. And now a review in a major literary journal. All because of this wonderful poet and person. I owe him my life, probably. Click here to order a copy!
The Art of Homage | The Millions
Homage is a way of acknowledging our forbearers, to celebrate where we came from by updating the past, calling back to it, poking fun at it, challenging it, embracing it, adoring it. Oates goes at it directly, Cunningham a little more abstractly, and Lang indirectly and directly. There is no right way to pay homage any more than there is a right way to love something.