Articles in belles-lettres
Can a famously cold and impersonal writer like Paul Auster make a memoir of aging that works against his strengths? And are they strengths after all?
In Changing My Mind novelist Zadie Smith, long a literary essayist, gathers together her burgeoning belles-lettres. Is it just a chance collection or does a common theme run through them? Sam Sacks reviews her views.
Why do we read personal essays? A new collection reminds us: to see not just the world but the writer looking at the world, and back at us.
The indefatigable Joyce Carol Oates offers a wide variety of thoughts on books and the literary world in her new collection Soul at the White Heat. Britta Böhler reviews.
The editors of Vanity Fair magazine delve into their century of writing to serve up dozens of their best writers writing about other writers.
What has not already been written about Virginia Woolf? A new critical biography offers ideas about how to read both her work and her life.
2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Mesa Selimovic’s modernist Yugoslavian masterpiece; Pedja Jurisic looks at Death and the Dervish today.
The masterful essays in Gregory Wolfe’s The Operation of Grace range from Mel Gibson to Thomas More, from Annie Dillard to Christopher Hitchens. Martyn Wendell Jones reviews.
Once upon a time, Westerns were a staple of American fiction. Now they’ve all but disappeared. Zach Rabiroff asks why cowboys rode off into the sunset.
Ever since Mary Shelley wrote her weird masterpiece two centuries ago, it’s been impossible to keep a good monster down. In the Shadow of Frankenstein gives readers two dozen pastiches that keep the Creature alive.
As the haze and heat of summer kick into full swing, the folk of Open Letters break out their annual Summer Reading recommendations!
History remembers him as the author of the famous dictum about power corrupting, but Lord Acton led an intense and fascinating life. Luciano Mangiafico tells his story.
How do we memorialize a literary titan who shaped his own mythology? The story of legendary writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez gained its protean final chapter in the wave of obituaries after his death in 2014.
If everybody’s a critic, as New York Times movie critic A.O. Scott claims in his new book, then where does that leave criticism? Sam Sacks reviews.
There are two kinds of essayists: explainers and explorers. Which populate the new series from Restless Books about the human face? John Cotter investigates.
John Berger’s writing on art often feels more dramatic than analytic, a passionate study of the unspoken transaction between artist and viewer. Robert Minto looks at Portraits.
Is loneliness a failure, or just a sign that one is alive? Olivia Laing’s new book explores the paradox of being alone in one of the world’s most crowded cities.
Kay Boyle, friend to William Carlos Williams, Katherine Anne Porter, and Samuel Beckett, was famous for her short stories but also wrote a lifetime’s worth of fascinating letters, now sampled in a new anthology.
How many copies of Middlemarch does one person need? When the edition is as lovely as this, there’s always room for one more.
Essayist, critic, novelist, and public gadfly: Gore Vidal’s long career took many forms and sprang from a life as dramatic as his work. Has that life finally found a biography to do it justice?
Anthony Powell’s name is synonymous with his twelve-volume behemoth “A Dance to the Music of Time.” But he had a long and varied writing career, and his early novel Venusberg, Levi Stahl contends, is well worth searching out in the shade of “Dance.”
Book critic Michael Dirda’s latest collection offers more personal musings on the subject he loves most
For decades, famed academic and critic Harold Bloom has been tilting against the windmills of cultural fads and forgettings. But in his latest (and last?) book, he strikes a different pose.
Byron the poet was also Byron the prolific correspondent and diarist, as a generous and learned new collection amply demonstrates
For twenty-five years, the “Table Talk” feature of The Threepenny Review has offered occasional musings on a wide range of topics by some of the best freelance writers and critics in the business. A new hardcover collects a generous helping of highlights
In his latest collection of essays, Theater of Cruelty, Ian Buruma launches a series of expert investigations into the springs of cruelty and the perils of victomhood.
With literary criticism disappearing as a popular artform, we increasingly look to the book reviewer to do the critic’s work. A new collection by John Domini offers an example of reviews that transcend their form to provide analysis alongside mere evaluation.
If you think distinctions between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art are stuffy Victorian relics, our beleagured Stephen Akey says, you’re just not paying enough attention. So are you a highbrow? And should you be? And should everybody be?
For a little over two years, shortly before she died, short story master Katherine Mansfield wrote a weekly book review column. Those pieces not only shed light on Mansfield’s particular slant of genius, but have much to say about the embattled art of reviewing.
Every correspondent in Moscow wanted to be the first to find Solzhenitsyn after he won the Nobel Prize in 1970. Michael Johson had that honor – but the great Russian writer wasn’t altogether pleased so see him.
Charles Blackstone, author of the novel Vintage Attraction and managing editor at Bookslut, speaks with Kevin Frazier about Chicago literature, online publishing, and being the spouse of a sommelier
“The Moonstone will have its vengeance on you and yours!” Those fateful words propel us into one of the first and best of modern English detective novels — still sensational after all these years.
An aspiring young writer encounters the journals of legendary Canadian novelist Elizabeth Smart, whose virtuoso novella By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept gives no hint of her struggles with her own writing
Today George Orwell is a buzzword; what can his collected letters tell us about the man himself? G. Robert Ogilvy looks for the human being beneath the persona.
Shirley Jackson is best known – infamous, even – for her chilling story “The Lottery.” But it’s her novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle, where battle rages between evil within and without, that’s her masterpiece.
Our feature continues, as more Open Letters folk share their annual Summer Reading recommendations!
Is close reading disappearing? And is that the most pressing problem facing universities? Terry Eagleton’s latest, How to Read Literature is a plea for a return to what made the humanities worth knowing.
Olivia Manning: A Woman at War
By Deirdre David
Oxford University Press, 2013
When is a woman writer not a “woman writer”? What does it mean to claim or resist that identity — for a woman who writes, …
In life there are no second chances, no do-overs. But what if we could keep trying until we got it right? Kate Atkinson explores the possibilities in a novel that just might win her a coveted literary prize or two.
On Kate Zambreno’s Heroines and the crime of dismissive criticism in both Bookforum and The LA Review of Books
Traumatized by her baby’s kidnapping and murder, disappointed in her marriage to a fallen hero, Anne Morrow Lindbergh found hope in the beautiful, fragile shells she found on the beach. The result was her gentle masterpiece Gifts from the Sea.
The media just won’t leave old man Voltaire alone! We run a transcript of the latest interview.
Venice has traded flinty commercial acumen and world-weary merchant princes for an ennui worthy of M. John Harrison’s science fiction; her profession has now become the art of insubstantiality. For centuries authors have tried and failed to capture her. Steve Donoghue surveys the glorious wreckage.
George Eliot’s Middlemarch is beloved for its wit and wisdom. But behind its many beauties lurks a disquieting possibility: that misery is the price we must pay for morality.
Spoiler alert! It’s a familiar warning — but isn’t it also a silly one? There’s so much more to novels than their plots. And yet what if we’re better readers for not knowing? Consider The Mill on the Floss, for example.
In M. John Harrison’s lyrical Viriconium trilogy, the high science of quantum physics meets the low art of fighting giant locusts. Justin Hickey finds a quiet spot to watch the chitin fly.
“The proper function of a critic is to save a tale from the artist who created it” wrote D. H. Lawrence, but sometimes – most of the time – despite the best efforts of the best critics, both tale and artist disappear. What do we do with the criti-cal darlings of yesteryear, now filling the library bargain sale? And what of the critics, who called them imperishable?
Year after year, D. H.Lawrence found love, lust, and gainful employment in Italy – and through the strange alchemy of the place, he also found the inspirations for some of his most enduring works of art.
John le Carré is still as popular as he’s ever been, but what about Len Deighton? Our correspondent has gone back to Deighton’s novels and found their Cold War intrigue and human dramas as rewarding as ever.
It is said that Thomas Hardy fell deeply in love with his wife, Emma, only after she died. Stephen Akey revisits the stunning, elegiac poetry he wrote in her memory.
Say “Evgeny Onegin” to any educated Russian and you will trigger the first stanza or two of Pushkin’s great novel in verse. Now Russia’s national poet is finally coming into his own in the West as well.
Unsettled and penniless, James Joyce’s exile was initially more imrpovised than cunning. Luciano Mangiafico tells the story of his early years on the continent.
“I knew my trip would mean an encounter with Adela Quested”: Victoria Olsen reflects on what she found, and what was lost in translation, when she travelled to India with E. M. Forster on her mind.
Although I would rather do almost anything than attend a literary reading (like, for instance, stay home and read), I made an exception for Jorge Luis Borges when he lectured to a packed house at …
Renowned reviewer and cultural critic Daniel Mendelsohn has a scintillating new collection of his recent work; John Cotter and Steve Donoghue compare notes on “Waiting for the Barbarians”
Madman, lothario, despot, drug fiend, friend and enemy of Mussolini – and immortal poet. Gabriele D’Annunzio was all of these things and many more in his whirlwind of a life.
Pound wrote The Pisan Cantos on toilet paper while prisoner in an open-air metal cage during WWII, and he spent many of the following years in mental hospitals. “I can get along with crazy people,” he quipped. “It’s only the fools I can’t stand.”
There are warring schools of fad and interpretation, there are critical readings of an hour or a season – and then there’s Wordsworth’s verse itself, annotating and amplifying the personal reading experience.
“Ellis, Leyner, Leavitt, Franzen, Powers…their fictions reduce to complaints and self-pity. Dostoevski has balls.” This and other gleanings from a trip to the David Foster Wallace archives.
The great Antonio Machado loved his native Spain and was disgusted by its descent into fascism; that fusion of enchantment and grief vivifies his unforgettable poetry.
You think you know Ivanhoe: it’s the original swash-buckling adventure story, full of fights, escapes, ambushes, and then, of course, a happy ending. But what you see if you look more closely may make you think twice about its chivalric ideals.
The verses of the neglected poet James Schuyler seem to ramble, but they don’t really ramble; they seem dishevelled, but they aren’t; they seem miniaturist, but they contain whole worlds. Stephen Akey makes the case for your renewed attention.
The inventor of the beloved Inspector Maigret was gigantically prolific – hundreds of novels, churned out at lightning speed (80 pages a day, according to the author himself) – and in this as in many other things, Georges Simenon was a world unto himself.
Book reviewers are split on whether Toni Morrison’s novel is a further triumph or a falling off. Or did these critics only find what they anticipated? We reviewed the reviews, then we reviewed the book.
“You come as opportunely as cheese on macaroni” is a terrible line, a symptom of all the reasons George Eliot’s Romola is a failure. But is failure really such a bad thing? Maybe a novelist’s reach should exceed her grasp.
The real mystery of Richard III is not the fate of his nephews, the Princes in the Tower, but why we never tire of telling and re-telling his story. What do we really see when we stare at his enigmatic portrait?
Art, Truth, Data, Sex, and Facebook–rabble-roused by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal’s The Lifespan of a Fact, Max Ross connects them in a key to all nonfiction aesthetics
Known as much for how she exited her life as for the poetry she wrote during it, Sylvia Plath remains a polarizing figure in the world of verse. What are we reading, when we subject ourselves to her poems?
Randall Jarrell was suspicious of attempts to turn criticism into a science: he wrote as a reader, for other readers, with the work itself foremost in his mind.
The raw sexuality of the Catullus’ love poems keeps them alive even today, and the things he implied about Julius Caesar STILL can’t be repeated in polite conversation – how do we deal with this young man who’s always making us feel just a bit uncomfortable?
To the quintessential virtues the Puritans lent to a fledgling republic – globality, philantropy, and autonomy – the ‘speaking aristocracy’ of the Boston Brahmins added one more: the love of learning
Of his 60+ books, one in particular, The United States, is best representative of his work as a whole and, by readers, best loved. On the Collected Essays of Gore Vidal.
Frank Kermode consumed all of the tumultuous 20th century’s literary theories without being consumed by them. A look at the work of this wisest of secular clerics.
For two generations, the great American critic and man of letters Edmund Wilson has been instructing and delighting his readers – and inspiring some of them to become critics themselves.
Elizabeth Hardwick joined the literary world of mid-20th century Manhattan with every intention of making her mark upon it – which she did, in review after inimitable review, taking American book-discourse to levels and places it had never reached before
Where would Lionel Trilling, godfather of the liberal imagination, fit into our contemporary culture of ideas? And how much of that culture is of his making?
Most criticism is reactive, but in his essay “The Poet,” Ralph Waldo Emerson proved prophetic. He set a challenge and Walt Whitman took him up on it.
Richard Poirier was one of the great bridge-builders–his sorely neglected classic A World Elsewhere drew upon the writing of Emerson but presciently anticipated the postmodernist ideas that would soon enter the mainstream.
The best of Anthony Lane’s many New Yorker reviews and essays were collected in Nobody’s Perfect, a big volume that amply displays this writer’s wit and subtlety.
Wallace Stevens, so long considered the driest and most cerebral of poets, can in fact touch the soul. It all hangs on the nature of poetry itself, what it is.
Nobody would accuse the mature Larkin of being a greeting card poet, and yet a warm and even vulnerable sentimentality bubbles up in his verse, often when it’s least expected.
Prince of the Bengali renaissance, internationally feted poet, composer, painter, educator — why don’t we know Rabindranath Tagore today? And will a new book open our eyes?
His own life was the great tragedy he was never quite able to write. Michael Adams assesses the career of playwright Terence Rattigan.
A rich, beautiful, but sadly neglected historical masterpiece: Hilda Prescott’s The Man on a Donkey is the War and Peace of the English Reformation
Provocative public intellectual/muckraker Christopher Hitchens offers an enormous volume of collected essays and articles, probably his last.
Once considered a credible rival to Dickens and Thackeray, W. H. Ainsworth is nearly forgotten today. It’s our loss: his historical novels – full of sensuous detail – run the gamut of romance and horror, tragedy and comedy.
Its early readers found the novel shocking, unfeminine, un-Christian, revolutionary. So why are film adaptations of Jane Eyre so studiously inoffensive?
It’s a comfortable truism that the novels of Jane Austen are all things to all readers. But … a life-instruction manual? From the OLM Archives, a review of A Jane Austen Education
Is Marjorie Garber’s defense of literary studies balm to the beleaguered English professor’s soul? Not yet, anyway.
Tarzan is one of the most popular fictional creations in modern times. Does the Ape Man define something essential in the human experience – or do we keep redefining Tarzan to suit our ever-changing needs?
‘She’s a drug; I’m her main focus, the focus of all her attention. No one has ever loved me like that.’ Victoria Best explores the fraught relationship between Marguerite Duras and the young man whose love inspired and tormented her.
Virginia Woolf imagined the Almighty seeing us coming towards Paradise, books in hand: “We have nothing to give them, they have loved reading.” But does reading always bring salvation?
In our Internet-fueled new century, can the in-between genre of the short novel survive? Or have novellas – with their speed and feral intensity – finally come into their own? Our Year with Short Novels concludes.
Is the death of literature finally dead? If not, it’s been dealt a healthy blow by Gregory Jusdanis’ Fiction Agonistes, even it art does have to “justify itself in a way not necessary before.”
Ever since Cain and Abel, literature has reserved a prominent place for sterling heroes — and the flawed, grasping, and entirely more interesting brothers who live in their shadow.
The most Bellovian figure of all may have been the man who lent us the term. A new collection of Saul Bellow’s letters present the man in all his exuberant passion and thorny short-temper.
Of the charismatic Yale lecturer one adoring student wrote, “Charles Hill is God,” and in his new book, Hill moves in mysterious ways. He claims that statecraft and the Western canon are inextricably linked — but there are doubters in the temple.
For more than fifty years and more than fifty novels, Louis Auchincloss chronicled the lives of New York’s upper class. His last book is a memoir of his life among that upper class — but is truth stranger than fiction?
As reproductive technology has become more advanced, the value of those engineered lives has become more complicated. Two recent novels provide a striking perspective on this growing conflict.
Free thinker, strong-minded woman, scholar, lover, novelist: George Eliot lived a courageous life that should be known and celebrated. But does Brenda Maddox’s biography do it justice?
“Art is dying,” Milan Kundera writes in his essay collection “Encounter,” “because the need for art is dying”; John G. Rodwan, Jr. assesses his attempt to re-stoke that need
Amardeep Singh rebuts the oldest of film-goer complaints with a defense of adaptations of classic literature, the more inventive the better
Alberto Manguel’s library of 30,000 books is his Holy of Holies, and his new essay collection is a spiritual (and at times gnomic) journey through its most sacred texts
Emmanuel Carrere’s memoir is an uneasy blend of sexual fantasy and archival records, of a future with a beautiful young woman and a past haunted by a possible Nazi collaborator
Steven Moore’s big new book seeks to give an ‘alternative history’ to that most familiar of literary forms, the novel. But at what point does history become wishful thinking?
In his new memoir, Christopher Hitchens regales his readers with one good story after another. But as John Rodwan shows, we’ve heard most of them before – lots of times.
When John Ruskin, the foremost architectural critic of the Victorian era, discovered Venice, he fell in love. An elaborate new work paints the picture in great detail.
Woe to the critic who calls Edith Grossman’s translations “seamless.” In her combative new treatise she argues for a greater recognition of the artistry of translation–but how many liberties can a translator take while staying true to the original?
Here today, gone tomorrow – remaindered on Amazon.com the day after that! Martha Moffett turns in a cautionary tale of the tangled fate of one novel.
Two seemingly dissimilar figures in the American literary landscape – Herman Melville and A. J. Liebling – shared at least one thing aside from a way with words: they weren’t afraid of a little digression now and then. John G. Rodwan Jr. follows along for the stories.
In The Same Man, David Lebedoff maintains that Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell were Doppelgängers, both in their art and their ethics; John G. Rodwan Jr. begs to differ.
In Vivian Gornick’s The Men in My Life, a committed feminist writes a collection of essays about literary men; Laura Tanenbaum monitors these latest dispatches from the gender conflict.
Notorious critic and essayist Christopher Hitchens has commented that certain writers are not shy of repeating themselves, and his critics have fired it right back at him. John G. Rodwan, Jr. enters the echo chamber.
The Homeless Moon
by Andrews, Deluca, Hoffman, Howe, & Ridler
Creative Commons Chapbook, 2008
The Homeless Moon is a chapbook collection of five short stories, all of which could be called science fiction but might also be called …
Dharma Bums: 50th Anniversary Edition
by Jack Kerouac
Louis Menand wrote an excellent piece in the New Yorker last year about On the Road, reminding us of the huge loneliness and nostalgia in and around the …
Plotlessness, gimmickry, tin-eared dialogue, navel-gazing, heavy-handed symbolism: Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman lovingly abuse these and other writerly sins in How Not to Write a Novel, and Steve Donoghue joins in their Bronx cheer
In his lifetime, E.B. White oversaw nearly a dozen collections of his essays; Karen Vanuska appraises a posthumous ingathering edited by Rebecca M. Dale and lets us know whether it adds to White’s legacy or merely overlaps it
Sam Sacks reviews Michael Dirda’s Classics for Pleasure, an old-fashioned reading guide that wants desperately to believe it hasn’t been made altogether anachronistic by the Internet, that elephant in the corner of the library.
This month our regular feature is devoted to a study of the small but potent canon of Marilynne Robinson. Sam Sacks dives back into her famous fiction and formidable essays.
For fifteen years a British and a Soviet family built a friendship by slipping letters past KGB censors. Karen Vanuska celebrates From Newbury with Love, a collection of their rich correspondence.
Fed up with the abuses of book reviewers, Gail Pool in her book Faint Praise advises editors to supply freelancers with a list of writing guidelines they would have to sign and abide by. Steve Donoghue isn’t quite ready to put his name on the dotted line.
In this regular feature, Steve Donoghue celebrates the life and letters of John Jay Chapman, an eloquent American wit now forgotten, whose writings once provoked and delighted an enthusiastic public.
Virginia Woolf buried the late John Evelyn with a single review. Now Leah Lambrusco lets us know whether Gillian Darley’s resurrected the diarist in John Evelyn, Living for Ingenuity. (Yes, he’s the other restoration diarist).
The only trouble with Sean O’Casey’s brilliant plays is that they overshadow
his magnificent memoirs. In our monthly feature, Steve Donoghue
tries to even the scales.
Steve Donoghue converses with the critics in his review of Hermione Lee’s page-turning but harrowingly huge biography of Edith Wharton
Sam Sacks laments the great divorce of Christianity from literature
Steve Donoghue assesses all of twentieth century literature. That’s correct: all of twentieth century literature. Don’t believe it…?
Sam Sacks looks into the breakout debuts of young novelists to determine how youth, ambition, and general cluelessness affect the writing of these early works.