The Best Literary Criticism of 2015

Without a doubt, 2015 was a year of controversy in literature and publishing, from the shady publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman to Michel Houellebecq’s controversial take on Islam and French politics in Submission. But it turned out that much of the best criticism of the year, while still concerned with literary controversy, was aimed at less anticipated targets. 2015 was a year when critics — and especially poets — took aim at structural racism and the tyrannical mediocrity of white male writers to great effect. Otherwise, as Ferrante recently implored us to do in the Financial Times, our best critics worked to “restore authentic centrality to the books themselves.”

CAConrad, Harriet Blog: “Kenneth Goldsmith Says He Is an Outlaw”

In March, the “uncreative poet” Kenneth Goldsmith appropriated the autopsy report of Michael Brown — the 18-year-old unarmed black resident of Ferguson, Missouri who was murdered by a white police officer — for a “poem” that he called “The Body of Michael Brown.” Goldsmith read the work at Brown University.

Among the best responses to this farce — or, rather, a response that contains many responses — is CAConrad’s piece “Kenneth Goldsmith Says He Is an Outlaw,” published at Harriet. After taking Goldsmith to task for his self-perceived “outlaw” status, the poet publishes a run of solicited responses to Goldsmith’s non-poem from a number of writers. One hopes the piece will be taught in schools in a course titled, “What Was Conceptualist Poetry?”

Gary Indiana, ARTnews:  “THREE LETTERS: JE NE SUIS PAS VOUS, ET VOUS N’ÊTES PAS MOI. LAISSONS LÀ.”

Few would deny that the lowest point achieved by literary discourse in 2015 came about in April and May, after a group of writers chose to protest a gala honoring the remaining staff of Charlie Hebdo with the 2015 PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award. Both sides had their reasons, to be sure, and I’ve been clear about which side I take, but the ridiculous, self-serving language used by nearly everyone involved became almost too much to bear. Thankfully, Gary Indiana came along to put it a stopper in it. It’s worth quoting at length:

I begin to imagine this PEN/Charlie Hebdo “controversy” was cooked up by PEN itself to stir some otherwise missing excitement about its activities. The content of the whole thing is zero; there is usually less fuss made about who gets the Nobel Prize. The real point of it begins to look like the endless repetition in print of the same four or five proper names, most of whom owe their entire careers to essentialist posturing and/or implacable, relentless networking.

Cathy Park Hong, The New Republic: “There’s a New Movement in American Poetry and It’s Not Kenneth Goldsmith”

Later in the year, in October, after Alec Wilkinson of the New Yorker published a bizarre piece that tried (and failed) to subliminally undercut Goldsmith’s detractors — note: Goldsmith regularly writes for the magazine — Cathy Park Hong righted the ship when she asserted that “the old guard of poetry” — represented by Goldsmith — had “collapsed.” Citing a confluence of poetry, performance, and protest, Hong notes that the tide is turning in poetry away from the ambitions of the conceptualist art-poet and the white literary male:

Poetry is becoming progressively fluid, merging protest and performance into its practice. The era of Conceptual Poetry’s ahistorical nihilism is over and we have entered a new era, the poetry of social engagement.

Jenny Zhang, BuzzFeed: “They Pretend To Be Us While Pretending We Don’t Exist”

As it happened, proof of Hong’s statement about the changing of the guard in poetry came the month before, when poet and writer Jenny Zhang published an essay about yet another racist — but, as Zhang makes clear, not atypical — moment in poetry. In her piece, Zhang responds to poet Michael Derrick Hudson’s “decision” to use yellowface, to write under an assumed Chinese name, in order to get accepted to 2015’s Best American Poetry anthology, edited by Sherman Alexie. There are too many great moments in Zhang’s essay to cite here, but it’s impossible to ignore the way she shifts from white mediocrity to the excellence of undersolicited writers of color. It’s an excellence that Zhang demonstrates repeatedly in her own work:

The long con of white mediocrity may never be exposed because there are too many people invested in making sure not a single instance of white excellence is overlooked but quickly drop the vigilance when it comes to the excellence of those of us who were never afforded such protection. But for those of us who didn’t grow up entitled, those of us who grew up underestimated, underinvited, undersolicited, underacknowledged, underloved, I say let’s expose each other’s excellence.

John Keene, J’s Theater: “On Vanessa Place, Gone With the Wind, and the Limit Point of Certain Conceptual Aesthetics”

Of a piece with Hudson’s yellowface and especially Kenneth Goldsmith’s appropriation of Michael Brown’s autopsy report is conceptualist poet Vanessa Place’s ongoing redistribution of Gone With the Wind (this year she began tweeting the text). In response to Place’s project, author John Keene — whose Counternarratives is the year’s best collection of short fiction — takes contemporary conceptualist practice to task for instrumentalizing black life as a limit-point for its “practice”:

A conceptual, which is to say formalist white-gaze gesture, involving the screenplay version (whose authors included the white screenwriters Sidney Howard, Oliver Garrett, Ben Hecht, Jo Swerling, and John Van Druten) of racist author Margaret Mitchell’s rendering of purported black speech, is supposed to represent a “deconstructive move” that reveals subtexts in the text concerning power, gender, race, and authorship. As if those are not already legible in the very fact of who wrote the novel and the screenplay, and who directed the film, let alone the life experiences of any black American person living in the United States in the era in which the film was set, or was made!

Rebecca Solnit, Literary Hub: “80 BOOKS NO WOMAN SHOULD READ” and “Men Explain Lolita to Me”

No writer was funnier or more decisive when skewering her targets this year than Rebecca Solnit, whose two pieces for Literary Hub on the subject of stupid, didactic literary men will sadly be worth reading for years to come.

Siri Hustvedt, Literary Hub: “Knausgaard Writes Like a Woman”

Part of the reason, maybe, that men don’t understand that they shouldn’t be explaining Lolita to anyone is that they don’t read novels by women. In this amazing piece, author Siri Hustvedt not only proves that Knausgaard “writes like a woman,” she also attacks the no-competition, homo-social contract of reading one’s own gender:

It is absolutely essential that men and women become fully conscious of what is at stake, that it is blazingly clear to every single one of us who cares about the novel that there is something at once pernicious and silly at work in our reading habits, that the fate of literary works cannot be decided by a no-competition clause appended to a spurious homo-social contract written under the aegis of fear, that such a clause is nothing short of “insane.”

Various, The New Republic: “Lolita Turns Sixty”

No thinking person would try to explain Lolita to these writers, who put together a kind of decalogue on the book that will probably go unrivaled for a decade. I learned more about Lolita reading this page-by-page guide than I did 1. reading it myself and 2. studying it in college.

Josephine Livingstone, Gawker: “Ban Men from Literary Readings”

Livingstone, who also contributed to the above-mentioned piece on Lolita, wrote this call to ban men from literary readings in the face of the trained self-censorship of moderators (who seem not to hear or notice women). What is otherwise to be done?

Christian Lorentzen, New York Magazine: “Jonathan Franzen’s Great Expectations”

Early in his tenure as New York Magazine’s book critic, Christian Lorentzen wrote arguably the best piece ever written on Jonathan Franzen. 

Franzen has been praised for the way he incorporates contemporary information in his novels, for the way his details paint a convincing now. In Purity, the effect is the opposite: Bits of sociology break the spell of a convincing present that they’ve been dragged in for the sole purpose of shoring up. The result is a kind of elite populism: topical melodramas stuffed with symbols and allusions that are never too difficult to catch, the way prestige TV is just smart enough to remind you it’s not trash.

Dwight Garner, The New York Times: “Bill Clegg’s ‘Did You Ever Have a Family’ Heaps One Tragedy Upon Another”

Dwight Garner’s review of Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family was probably the best straightforward hit piece of the year:

I fear I am being very rough on Mr. Clegg’s novel, rougher than I would like to be. But the pocket where I generally put the nice things I want to say about a book is, in this instance, pretty empty.

Dayna Tortorici, n+1: “Those Like Us”

Tortorici, editor of n+1, has written the most clear-eyed take on Ferrante I’m aware of:

By the time The Story of the Lost Child appears in English this fall, with its comically ditzy cover  —  two girls in fairy wings sitting on the beach, facing the shore  —  the Neapolitan books will likewise have reached hundreds of thousands of readers. And like History, the Neapolitan novels will form an unorthodox piece of historical fiction, a chronicle of postwar Italy with almost no dates, few intrusive headlines, and no Great Men.

Ben Lerner, London Review of Books:  “Diary”

Ben Lerner, poet and novelist, hates poetry.

Elena Ferrante, London Review Bookshop: “Promotion is Expensive”

In this beautifully written letter to her publisher from 25 years ago, Ferrante explains why she’ll remain anonymous:

To explain all the reasons for my decision, is, as you know, hard for me. I will only tell you that it’s a small bet with myself, with my convictions. I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t. There are plenty of examples. I very much love those mysterious volumes, both ancient and modern, that have no definite author but have had and continue to have an intense life of their own. They seem to me a sort of nighttime miracle, like the gifts of the Befana, which I waited for as a child.

Claire Vaye Watkins, Tin House: “On Pandering”

Although it generated no shortage of debate, few could deny that Watkins’ forceful essay on pandering to white men caused readers and writers alike to consider who their writing is meant to address.

I wrote Battleborn for white men, toward them. If you hold the book to a certain light, you’ll see it as an exercise in self-hazing, a product of working-class madness, the female strain. So, natural then that Battleborn was well-received by the white male lit establishment: it was written for them.