Literature & Criticism

Philip Roth in 1977.

Undoing Philip Roth

James Wolcott

20 May 2021

Exemplary craftsman, incorrigible satyr, subversive joker, avid grievance collector, liberal humanist, good son, bad husband, bountiful benefactor, Philip Roth in his prickly contrarieties aroused an ambivalence unlike that of almost any other American writer, and this ambivalence may have been what helps keep him alive for us, always under contention, a disputable proposition. Or kept him alive because, from here on, who the hell knows?

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‘Detransition, Baby’

Lauren Oyler

20 May 2021

The title​ is distinctly weird, resolutely of our time, but not something anyone would actually say. Detransition, Baby: disparate registers ironically combined, in a standard format, to make a little . . .

Creeley’s Chatter

August Kleinzahler

20 May 2021

Logorrhoea:​ Charles Olson, Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley were all afflicted with it. I only ever witnessed Duncan’s performances – free-form, extended, mostly improvised soliloquies . . .

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

Madhu Krishnan

20 May 2021

The​ Perfect Nine takes as its source material the creation myth of the Agĩkũyũ peoples of Kenya. At the top of Kirima Kĩrĩ Nyaga – known in English as Mount Kenya . . .

Lucille Clifton

Andrea Brady

22 April 2021

Lucille Clifton developed an intensely economic­al style: short lines, sparse punctuation, ordinary language whose modesty is stress­ed by its lack of capitals. Her poems seem simple, but build . . .

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.

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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.

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Vermicular Dither

Michael Hofmann, 28 January 2010

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

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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,...

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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...

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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.

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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.

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It’s brave of C. Pam Zhang to come at her themes from an angle – if the setting isn’t actual 19th-century America, then there’s a risk that her revisionism might lose its relevance...

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Eels on Cocaine

Emily Witt, 22 April 2021

Patricia Lockwood is a generous writer. She seems incapable of resentment and has a Rabelaisian appreciation for the bawdy. She can describe America’s corporate restaurant chains and their blooming...

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The social identities behind the vintage references in Artem Chekh and Zakhar Prilepin’s works are the fundamental oppositions of the 21st century: on one side the liberals, the bourgeois, the cosmopolitans,...

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The Flower and the Bee: Many Anons

Irina Dumitrescu, 22 April 2021

Writing is not now considered a collective exercise. The Romantic myth of the lone genius persists. He is no longer always a white man – only most of the time. The black and white author photo is...

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Kafka wrote that, were it not for the final act, Michael Kohlhaas would be ‘a thing of perfection’, which is a diplomatic way of saying that Kleist absolutely butchers it. In fact, one of the...

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Fed up with Ibiza: Sybille Bedford

Jenny Turner, 1 April 2021

You might start reading her for the food and the celebrity gossip, but you reread for the thrilling materiality, ‘concrete and fastidious’, as she herself once suggested, of her prose:...

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Bon-hommy: Émigré Words

Michael Wood, 1 April 2021

French is fancy and fashionable, but we aren’t going to fall for that. We have solid, stocky Saxon words to hand, verbal guarantees of a closeness to reality. Who needs ennui when we have old-fashioned...

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Yeah, that was cool: ‘Rave’

Harry Strawson, 1 April 2021

Rainald Goetz isn’t much interested in telling tales of hedonistic excess. He’s not above name­dropping, showing off about the DJs he was friends with and the cool clubs he went to, but...

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On Charles Wright

Matthew Bevis, 1 April 2021

Finishing Oblivion Banjo, I was left in a Wright-like quandary: ‘I seem to have come to the end of something, but don’t know what.’ The book offers itself as ‘the perfect distillation’...

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‘He took stories apart and put them back together like toys,’ Gianni Rodari’s wife remembered in a rare interview. Often it seems the reassembly is an attempt to construct the kind of...

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It may be inherently impossible to write a novel that openly poses such questions as whether robots can be said to have souls, or to be conscious, or capable of feeling love, or of inspiring and reciprocating...

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Why do it, Sarah? ‘The Glass Kingdom’

Blake Morrison, 18 March 2021

Lawrence Osborne’s novels include all the props associated with thrillers: guns, heists, bribes, spiked drinks, assumed identities, ghostly visitations and suitcases stuffed with banknotes. But the...

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Stainless Steel Banana Slicer

David Trotter, 18 March 2021

Gimmickry is the séance during which some commodities, at least, have begun to dance as if of their own free will. Marx’s term for ‘of its own free will’ is ‘aus freien Stücken’...

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Words, too, can mean opposite things. This is a minority interest among those who want language to communicate plainly, but it’s of consummate interest to poets. In the procedural poems, you see...

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A remarkable number of scenes take place in the lavatory or on the way to it. We get milk stinking of mice, clothes reeking of paraffin and horse’s sweat, the musty odour of armpits and the ‘heavy...

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It’s a familiar paradox: in order to save herself, the writer needs to get away from her family; and yet when she sits down to write, the lost world of family is her best material – all those...

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Gotcha, Pat! Highsmith in My Head

Terry Castle, 4 March 2021

Patricia High­smith was able to dramatise the loss of con­trol so shockingly because she knew how it felt. Though not herself a homicidal maniac (as far as one knows), she could imagine what it...

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One​ of the inhabitants of Middle England, the title and the setting of Jonathan Coe’s last novel, part of a location that is also called ‘merrie’, ‘deep’ and...

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