Literature & Criticism

Painting of a dark river by Naomi Frears.

If we had a real choice

Madeleine Schwartz

21 January 2021

Sophie Mackintosh’s two novels could be classified as dystopias but they are more like hermetically sealed thought experiments. The worlds they describe are different from the one we wake up in, but neither more sophisticated nor more developed. Her novels are grounded in what her characters touch, eat and see. The books contain no politicians, grandparents, cousins; her characters have been reduced to the barest relationships and emotions.

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Colin Burrow

21 January 2021

‘What if?’ is the question all fiction asks. Oedipus Rex: ‘What if someone unknowingly killed his father and married his mother?’ Emma: ‘What if someone accidentally encouraged . . .

Rilke, To Me

Michael Hofmann

21 January 2021

One​ doesn’t think of Rainer Maria Rilke writing poems on subjects that might otherwise appear in newspapers and books of social history – on anything like emigration or poverty or unemployment . . .

Ottessa Moshfegh

J. Robert Lennon

7 January 2021

About a third​ of the way into Ottessa Moshfegh’s Death in Her Hands, the protagonist, Vesta Gul, walks into a library, fires up a web browser and clicks on a page entitled TOP TIPS FOR MYSTERY . . .

Dentists? No Way

Naoise Dolan

7 January 2021

Do​ the Irish have a unique way of handling death? I don’t know, but I can tell you how my family does it. We circle through dark humour, pass around food and drink, pivot to banalities, current . . .

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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Wire him up to a toaster: Ordinary Carey

Seamus Perry, 7 January 2021

John Carey has always been alive to what he once called ‘the strengths of the unliterary’, the salutary effect that a principled suspicion of the aesthetic may have on the actual practice of...

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Into a Blazing Oven: Virginie Despentes

Lili Owen Rowlands, 17 December 2020

Reviewers like to say that Despentes’s trilogy ‘holds a mirror up’ to French society and call it things like ‘the Comédie humaine 2.0’. But Balzac wrote about modern...

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Head in an Iron Safe: Dickens’s Tricks

David Trotter, 17 December 2020

Dickens fought long and hard against the human tendency to focus exclusively on what is of immediate pressing concern in any given situation. His often anodyne protagonists have to compete for our attention...

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A ‘true ghost story’, except to a believer, moves between the worlds of fact and fiction, but Alma Fielding’s poltergeist is more disturbing. It inhabits a place of constant dissolution...

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Echo is a fangirl

Ange Mlinko, 3 December 2020

Denise Riley argues with her identities and ‘identity’ in general: she is unhappy with them, casts them off only to find them stuck on again in the morning. She is also our pre-eminent dialectician...

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Coughing Out Slogans: DeLillo tunes out

Andrew O’Hagan, 3 December 2020

His great instinct, all along, has been to give shape to dread­ful events before they happen, before the people who might carry them out are even born, and to seem to know their source in our public...

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Saint Agnes’s Lament: ‘Shuggie Bain’

Christian Lorentzen, 3 December 2020

Amid the tearing of hair and the rending of garments, the busted teeth and the vomit, a picture of a gutted Glasgow emerges. It’s the dark side of Thatcher’s Britain, another reason for the...

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Niela Orr, 3 December 2020

With its double entendre connoting the kind of thing adults say about toddlers as well as an era-defining sarcasm, Such a Fun Age is interested in a different sort of hysterical realism: how is it possible...

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Just a Devil: Kristeva on Dosto

Michael Wood, 3 December 2020

The riddle of who is made in the image of whom – humans in that of God or the Devil, God or the Devil in that of humans – becomes an extravagant joke about figuration, about any attempt to...

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How do you write against your audience, an audience that celebrates your work but interprets it narrowly? The title on the cover, Homie, is for this audience; for Danez Smith’s publishers; and for...

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Always Smiling: ‘Real Life’

Paul Mendez, 19 November 2020

Real Life bristles with everyday micro-aggressions, all the myriad, annihilating ways blackness is weaponised. It’s a campus novel, but anyone familiar with 19th-century slave narratives will hear...

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Staying Alive: ‘The New Wilderness’

Rosa Lyster, 5 November 2020

Most climate dystopias are set in this temporal and spatial landscape: well into the obliterated future. The terrible thing has happened, and the details of how we got there are unimport­ant, as are...

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Eat butterflies with me?

Patricia Lockwood, 5 November 2020

Nabokov and I are hardly a match made in heaven – I’m stumped by the most elementary brain­teasers, every chess game I’ve ever played has lasted at least two hours and no one has...

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‘Since this trouble with my back, I’ve read all the detective stories there ever were, I should think,’ a character says in Agatha Christie’s Peril at End House....

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Jack is a love story; it contains miracles. It is also the most theological of Robinson’s novels, bound by religious paradox and poetic impossibility. Robinson is interested in love, not as desire...

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Thom Gunn in New York

Michael Nott, 22 October 2020

Of all the ‘different varieties of New Jerusalem ... I’d only return to one,’ Gunn wrote, ‘For the sexual New Jerusalem was by far the greatest fun.’ ‘He was very interested...

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Strut like Mutya: Paul Mendez

Nicole Flattery, 22 October 2020

Rainbow Milk is a candid, sometimes un­even novel. But at moments it’s electrifying – an algorithmic pop ballad that suddenly transcends itself and sounds different, more affecting, like...

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Slavery and Revenge

John Kerrigan, 22 October 2020

The earliest texts that look extensively at the slave trade are structured by the motifs and conventions of revenge tragedy: resentment, conspiracy, delay, the grand soliloquy and, above all, tortured...

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