Literature as a Chain Letter Among Friends: On the Fantasy of Critical Distance

Over the weekend, New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan lightly chided the editorial staff of the paper’s book review for a perceived imbalance in the way it chooses its reviewers. At issue is a question of intimacy or closeness. “How Close Is Too Close?” the article’s title asks (mirroring the oppressively Socratic form of the Review’s Bookends column). When a reviewer knows the book’s author, does this constitute a conflict of interest? … Read More

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Joyce Carol Oates’ Joyless Critique of Literary Critics’ Joylessness

Yesterday, Joyce Carol Oates took to Twitter to admonish, in a familiar way, the supposedly gloom-stricken, anhedonic minds of literary critics. The idea, as usual, is that critics are parsimonious, even vindictive melancholics who are constitutionally incapable of setting aside Occam’s Razor in order to enjoy the pleasures of reading. Here is a sample: … Read More

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Poetry as Criticism of Life: On Claudia Rankine’s Twin NBCC Nominations

The slate of finalists for the National Book Critics Circle award is strong — perhaps as strong as any shortlist in recent memory. With its stalwarts and new blood, its willingness to rescue books that should have been nominated for other awards while remaining unafraid of recognizing established authors, the list, inasmuch as it is a cross section of American literature in 2014, shows a thriving organism. … Read More

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What Do We Even Want From Book Reviews Anymore?

Slate’s Mark O’Connell has some issues with the Hatchet Job of the Year, an annual award the Omnivore has been giving out for three years to celebrate “the angriest, funniest, most trenchant book review.” According to O’Connell, it isn’t only a bad thing because it “publicizes and rewards mediocre and shallow criticism by the kind of people who’ll shoot a baboon point-blank in the tits for their own amusement”; the award also “actively promotes such criticism, going out of its way to ensure that more of it gets written.” … Read More

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What’s Missing From the Smarm vs. Snark Debate: Honesty

Yesterday, Tom Scocca lit up the ersatz (and real!) cultural-critic Internet with an essay called “On Smarm.” Hooked into the still-bubbling controversy over the appointment of Isaac Fitzgerald as Buzzfeed Books editor — a controversy that, for the record, I’ve already said I don’t think is of itself that big a deal — the piece is really a longer and deeper reflection about the role of snark in the world more generally. I mean, the essay has targets that run the gamut from Dave Eggers to Ari Fleischer to New Yorker film critic David Denby. And it makes many points, but the essential one is this:

Snark is often conflated with cynicism, which is a troublesome misreading. Snark may speak in cynical terms about a cynical world, but it is not cynicism itself. It is a theory of cynicism.

The practice of cynicism is smarm.

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Robin Givhan Talks Model Diversity, “Inner Swagger” in Reddit AMA

Fashion critic Robin Givhan never lacks for quotability, whether she’s eviscerating Michelle Obama’s fashion choices for the Washington Post or breaking down Marc Jacobs’ latest collection for The Cut. So it’s unsurprising that Givhan’s Reddit AMA, in which she fielded questions on everything from runway diversity to the essentials of a collegiate wardrobe, is as full of candid, concise prose as any of her reviews. Below, our roundup of the highlights from Givhan’s Q&A, which focused on fighting systemic racism in the fashion industry as much as Givhan’s personal experiences as a renowned critic. It includes her instructing a 30-year-old man to “find your inner swagger,” so needless to say, we highly recommend a quick read. Here are the highlights.

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Who’s Afraid of Jennifer Weiner and Her Book Review Crusade?

This week and last, the novelist Jennifer Weiner has been rehashing an old complaint of hers: namely, that the New York Times Book Review doesn’t give writers of commercial fiction like her enough coverage. They don’t review the books enough, and they don’t hire enough commercial writers as reviewers. If you’re already wondering how such a tempest-in-a-teapot claim has inspired an avalanche of blog posts — after all, the NYTBR does seem to avoid anything smacking of so-called “chick lit” — keep in mind that every literary blogger on the planet is on a perpetual audition to write for the NYTBR. (Including this one. Hi, editor!) … Read More

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The Best Critical Responses to the End of ‘Girls’ Season 2

As with the end of most episodes of Girls, its Season 2 finale, “Together,” leaves us with more answers than questions: Should Hannah and Adam have been reunited after that shameful potential rape scene last week? Is Adam really in a position to help Hannah? Why did Shoshanna and Ray have to break up? What’s the deal with Marnie and Charlie getting back together? Oh, and where did Jessa go (and did she get her vagina pierced)? Now that we’ve had 36 hours or so to let Sunday night’s finale sink in, we’ve dug up the best critical writing on the episode, tempering the surge of critical responses to highlight the most thought-provoking pieces. … Read More

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12 Great Movies The Critics Got Dead Wrong

If you’ve paid much attention to film festival coverage over the past few months, you’ve probably heard a thing or two about a film called The Raid (it was later given the rather silly subtitle Redemption, though I’ll be damned if I recall anybody being redeemed in it). It screened at Toronto, Sundance, and SXSW, and it is a knockout — a powder keg of pure action, done with deadpan humor and hyperkinetic style. I saw it at an all-media screening at Sundance, and even among that jaded group, the audience literally gasped at loud at several points, and burst into applause at the end. It’s terrific cinema.

And that’s why so many people who have seen it are losing their shit over Roger Ebert’s inexplicable one-star review of the movie, which went online last night. He complains about the film’s “wall-to-wall violence,” cracks that “if I estimated the film has 10 minutes of dialogue, that would be generous,” and says that the picture is “almost brutally cynical in its approach.” This coming from a guy who gave three stars to Transformers and most of the Fast/Furious franchise.

Then again, as much as we love Mr. Ebert, this isn’t the first time he got a great movie dead wrong. His one-star pan of Blue Velvet is still a head-scratcher; ditto the single star he awarded Wet Hot American Summer. And don’t even get us started on that two-star review of the original Die Hard. The point is, sometimes the critics just plain get it wrong. After the jump, we’ll take a look at a dozen classic movies, and the scribes who blew the call on them. … Read More

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