Criticism

Because my background is academic (and in English studies), certain disciplinary conventions still find their way into my review writing. In fact, it’s hard for me to think of my reviewing as reviewing rather than as criticism in that more university-bound sense: that is, as having something to do with the art of interpretation. It may help that most of the books I review – works of contemporary poetry and literary criticism – are considered ‘hard’ or at least esoteric, and thus in need of a little explaining. The persona I hear most recognisably in my journalistic prose is that of my former lecturer-self (a good lecture, like a good review, strikes the right balance between granular analysis and makeshift generalisation). I suppose I still think of the primary goal of my reviewing as teaching something about how to read.

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Along Heroic Lines by Christopher Ricks

by
August 2021, no. 434

The first essay in Christopher Ricks’s Along Heroic Lines is the text of his inaugural lecture as Professor of Poetry at Oxford, an honorary post he held from 2004 to 2009. He takes as his subject the formal distinction between poetry and prose. If one is going to be a professor of poetry, the least one can do is arrive at a satisfactory definition of one’s object of study. To this end, Ricks summons to the witness stand an august procession of English poets and critics – Samuel Johnson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Matthew Arnold, Alfred Tennyson, W.H. Auden, A.C. Bradley – and considers their authoritative pronouncements on the matter, only to arrive at the inconvenient conclusion that a strict line of demarcation is difficult to sustain.

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The term ‘autotheory’, despite having been around since the 1990s, gained prominence after the release of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts in 2015. Predictably, the emergent term elicited a flurry of academic interest, amid which Lauren Fournier – curator, video artist, filmmaker, and academic – established herself as a leading voice. Autotheory as Feminist Practice in Art, Writing, and Criticism, Fournier’s first monograph, builds on her previous work, offering a condensed history of the genre and a number of case studies drawn from literature and the arts.

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What we know and how we think and feel are socially and thus historically conditioned. But it can also be geographically conditioned. ‘Australia’, as Mrs Golson remarks in The Twyborn Affair, ‘may not be for everyone ... For some it is their fate, however.’ Our subject is Patrick White and criticism of his work in Australia and my argument is that ours is a culture in general, and a literary culture in particular, with an indifference to and perhaps fear of hermeneutics, which George Steiner glosses as some ‘essential answerability’ implicit in the act of reading over and above understanding or – Leavis preserve us! – evaluation.

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When the German social commentator Oscar A.H. Schmitz described England as ‘Das Land ohne Musik’ [The Country without Music], the insult stuck. Its veracity arose not because the English lacked a vibrant musical culture, or a lively intellectual class prepared to engage with what they were hearing. Rather, it was because Schmitz ...

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Not long into the Obama era, the American comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert hosted a high-profile ‘Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear’ in Washington, DC. In front of an enormous crowd of well-intentioned liberals, Stewart made a case for a return to the sensible centre. ‘We live in hard times, not end times,’ he declared ...

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It saddens me to say it, but Lorrie Moore’s first collection of non-fiction is a serious disappointment. Having long admired her astonishing fiction, I came to this new book expecting to find obscure essays and little-known gems from across Moore’s long career ...

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Chicago-based music critic Jessica Hopper disdains introductory tedium. Were I to mimic her style, we'd be off and running by now, or grappling with a question ...

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Last month in Melbourne, a group of book reviewers and literary editors took part in a conference organised by Monash University’s Centre for the Book. There were more than thirty short papers, or ‘provocations’, as they were styled. Our Editor lamented the low or non-payment of some reviewers ( ...

In a review of several books on motherhood (LRB, 14 June 2014), Jacqueline Rose – feminist, writer on psychoanalysis, English professor, ‘public intellectual’ – interprets Adrienne Rich’s belief that to give birth is to testify to the possibilities of humanity, as a variation on Hannah Arendt’s formulation, in an essay on totalitarianism, that ‘freedom is identical with the capacity to begin’. As bearers of new lives, women are thus the repositories of tremendous power, which is undermined by the patriarchy. Arendt’s collection of essays Men in Dark Times (1968) provided the framework for Rose’s exhilarating, disturbing, ‘scandalous’ (Rose calls for a ‘scandalous feminism’ in the preface) book, Women in Dark Times.

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