Literature & Criticism

Illustration by Naomi Frears

Colm Tóibín’s ‘Long Island’

Blake Morrison

6 June 2024

So much in Long Island goes unsaid. It’s a world in which people speak knowledgeably (and sometimes bitchily) about others but reveal little of themselves. As well as secrets, there are problems of articulation: stutters and stammers, an inability to express feeling. Whatever you say, you say nothing.

Read more about Havering and Wavering: Colm Tóibín’s ‘Long Island’

Percival Everett’s ‘James’

Deborah Friedell

23 May 2024

In​ 1867, Mark Twain went to Europe aboard the Quaker City, the ‘first luxury cruise in American history’. He was underwhelmed by the Titians in the Doge’s Palace – ‘there is nothing tangible . . .

Aztec Anachronisms

Adam Mars-Jones

23 May 2024

Culture shock​ seems too mild a phrase to describe the arrival of Europeans in South and Central America. In his 1976 maverick classic, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind . . .

Ballard’s Enthusiasms

Edmund Gordon

23 May 2024

By the time​ H.G. Wells died, in August 1946, the genre he’d done more than anyone to establish was headquartered on the other side of the Atlantic. John Wyndham and Arthur C. Clarke, the most important . . .

On Donna Stonecipher

Maureen N. McLane

23 May 2024

Prose poetry,​ the bête noire of traditionalists, has existed since at least the 1840s, though as recently as 1979 Mark Strand was denied a Pulitzer Prize because his collection The Monument was made . . .

Malfunctioning Sex Robot: Updike Redux

Patricia Lockwood, 10 October 2019

When he is in flight you are glad to be alive. When he comes down wrong – which is often – you feel the sickening turn of an ankle, a real nausea. All the flaws that will become fatal later are present at the beginning. He has a three-panel cartoonist’s sense of plot. The dialogue is a weakness: in terms of pitch, it’s half a step sharp, too nervily and jumpily tuned to the tics and italics and slang of the era. And yes, there are his women.

Read more about Malfunctioning Sex Robot: Updike Redux

Get a Real Degree

Elif Batuman, 23 September 2010

I should state up front that I am not a fan of programme fiction. Basically, I feel about it as towards new fiction from a developing nation with no literary tradition: I recognise that it has anthropological interest, and is compelling to those whose experience it describes, but I probably wouldn’t read it for fun.

Read more about Get a Real Degree

Vermicular Dither

Michael Hofmann, 28 January 2010

Stefan Zweig just tastes fake. He’s the Pepsi of Austrian writing.

Read more about Vermicular Dither

Le pauvre Sokal: the Social Text Hoax

John Sturrock, 16 July 1998

Way back in the pre-theoretical Fifties, a journalist called Ivor Brown used to have elementary fun at the expense of a serial intruder on our insular peace of mind, a bacillus known as the LFF,...

Read more about Le pauvre Sokal: the Social Text Hoax

The Fatness of Falstaff

Barbara Everett, 16 August 1990

One day early in the 1590s a clown came onto a London stage, holding a piece of string. At the end of the piece of string was a dog. The dog, possibly the first on the Elizabethan stage, I want to...

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Paul de Man’s Abyss

Frank Kermode, 16 March 1989

Paul de Man was born in 1919 to a high-bourgeois Antwerp family, Flemish but sympathetic to French language and culture. He studied at the Free University of Brussels, where he wrote some pieces...

Read more about Paul de Man’s Abyss

Diary: On the Booker

Julian Barnes, 12 November 1987

The only sensible attitude to the Booker is to treat it as posh bingo. It is El Gordo, the Fat One, the sudden jackpot that enriches some plodding Andalusian muleteer.

Read more about Diary: On the Booker

Sounding Auden

Seamus Heaney, 4 June 1987

Hard-bitten, aggressively up-to-date in the way it took cognisance of the fallen contemporary landscape, yet susceptible also to the pristine scenery of an imaginary Anglo-Saxon England, Auden’s original voice could not have been predicted and was utterly timely.

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Fairy Flight in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’

William Empson, 25 October 1979

So the working fairy does at least half a mile a second, probably two-thirds, and the cruising royalties can in effect go as fast as her, if they need to. Puck claims to go at five miles a second, perhaps seven times what the working fairy does. This seems a working social arrangement.

Read more about Fairy Flight in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’

With what he called his ‘anthropological eye’, Wilson set out to dramatise the ‘dazed and dazzling … rapport with life’ which allowed African Americans to navigate a white world not of their...

Read more about Where’s the barbed wire? August Wilson's Transformation

Her childhood in rural Warwickshire gave Comyns the material for her first book, Sisters by a River. It was essential to much of what followed in both life and work, though she was lucky to get out of...

Read more about See stars, Mummy: Barbara Comyns’s Childhood

Brontë was interested in consequence. She couldn’t care less about why people do the things they do. The fact is that they do them.

Read more about Heathcliff Redounding: Emily Brontë’s Scenes

Like good theatre, Patrick deWitt's fiction is full of dialogue, quick, eventful, nimble. Then there is the life-altering incident, which is always a monologue delivered centre-stage and projected to the...

Read more about Impotent Revenge: Patrick deWitt’s Dioramas

So many of Hisham Matar’s themes – trauma and vulnerability, the question of how to oppose authoritarianism, the experience of exile – seem very contemporary. Yet there is something profoundly conservative...

Read more about Eaten Alive by a Vicious Cat: On Hisham Matar

Where does culture come from?

Terry Eagleton, 25 April 2024

Marxism is about leisure, not labour. The only good reason for being a socialist, apart from annoying people you don’t like, is that you don’t like to work.

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Wobbly, I am: Famous Seamus

John Kerrigan, 25 April 2024

As Seamus Heaney’s fame grew, and ‘the N-word’ (Nobel) added lustre, he attracted intrusive commentary. There were ‘feminist uppercuts’ and ‘Marxist flesh wounds’ from the academics. The...

Read more about Wobbly, I am: Famous Seamus

Johnson insisted that ‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,’ and that he would therefore write about anyone or anything if the price were right – a hard-nosed attitude to his craft...

Read more about Own your ignorance: Samuel Johnson’s Criticism

In the shifting, centuries-long history of his reception, Chaucer has been read as both irreverent and pious, experimental and traditional, cosmopolitan and quintessentially English.

Read more about At the Bodleian: ‘Chaucer Here and Now’

Like the inhabitants of other small and remote countries, the Icelander has the choice to go or stay. Halldór Laxness did both. He was a cosmopolitan and a homebody. He yo-yoed. He stayed in Iceland and...

Read more about Double-Time Seabird: Halldór Laxness does both

Rambo v. Rimbaud: On Justin Torres

Emily Witt, 4 April 2024

Justin Torres’s Blackouts isn’t biography, or historical fiction, but a kind of compilation of miscellanea that provides some primary texts, adds fictional embellishments, and then shrugs.

Read more about Rambo v. Rimbaud: On Justin Torres

Is it even good? Two Years with Zola

Brandon Taylor, 4 April 2024

For Zola, the greatest moral act is to bear witness. Sometimes when I read novels set in the past, a contemporary smugness sets in. But when the past comes uncomfortably close to the events you’re living...

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At the Movies: ‘American Fiction’

Michael Wood, 21 March 2024

The film keeps threatening to come apart, almost unable to juggle its sorrowful realism with its wild farce. It doesn’t come apart, though, and the survived threat is part of the unshakeable discomfort...

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Escape the bear trap: ‘Family Meal’

Josie Mitchell, 21 March 2024

In Bryan Washington's Family Meal, jokes and gestures stand in for confessional outpourings, occasionally revealing an unacknowledged depth of feeling. But elsewhere the laconic dialogue leaves the reader...

Read more about Escape the bear trap: ‘Family Meal’

Unblenched: Homage to Brigid Brophy

Lucie Elven, 21 March 2024

Brophy’s writing is propelled by the excitement of the intellect, while the emotion is held within the structure. She found a form for her work that accommodated her need for artifice, for self-creation...

Read more about Unblenched: Homage to Brigid Brophy

Sprigs of Wire: On Jo Ann Beard

Ange Mlinko, 21 March 2024

Jo Ann Beard is a cunning craftswoman who draws circles and parallels across time, embedding patterns that unite seemingly disparate tales.

Read more about Sprigs of Wire: On Jo Ann Beard

The notion of existential lack, of a hole that yearns to be filled, of the human need to be made whole through connection with another, is a fundamental and recurrent preoccupation in Coetzee’s fiction. 

Read more about Mothers and Others: Coetzee’s Multistorey Consciousness

Buchi Emecheta said that all her books were about survival, but survival doesn’t always mean gritting your teeth. Sometimes it means acting the tourist for a day, skipping the royal press conference...

Read more about Lady This and Princess That: On Buchi Emecheta

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