How do you know what you think you know? This question—with that emphasis—is, I think, at the heart of criticism. Taking as a given the journalistic or scholarly aspects of criticism (dates, names, facts and figures, and where and how a particular work fits within a recognized continuum), criticism gets interesting when the critic interrogates their own ideas, their certainty about the rightness or wrongness of a given text, a certain epoch, the current temperature of society. If we can agree that our minds are a terra incognita, a tricky terrain we must make sense of whenever we have to gather our thoughts, then we can agree on how essential rigor is for simply figuring out what it is we mean to say. This commitment to avoiding gesture or simplification—this cussedness about sitting cross-armed until the melding layers of what we think and perceive are dissected and named—is the only way of demarcating the landscape. These six books—fabulous maps, if you will, unique to their authors—have proved helpful to me in this regard. They taught me how to pick my way through this territory and recognize what I see. What matters is not planting your flag on a book or an event under consideration, but staking a claim to that patch of you that remainswithout form or shape until you describe it into being.
The War against Cliché: Essays and Reviews, 1971–2000—Martin Amis (2001)
Though best known for his fiction, Amis is a splendid writer of nonfiction of all stripes—memoir, reportage, and the perfectly tuned book review. Beyond spurring a critic to write as respectable a sentence as they can after encountering his gleaming prose, Amis flaunts the wallop of well-deployed discrimination when it’s in the service of elevating the dismissed (see his piece on the genius of Elmore Leonard) and of deflating the hyped (see his ruthless destruction of the idea that a Thomas Harris novel could be considered literature). The biting specificity of his assessment is worth considering, if not emulating.
Awake in the Dark: The Best of Roger Ebert: Forty Years of Reviews, Essays, and Interviews—Roger Ebert (2006)
Ebert’s satisfyingly incisive reviews are partly the result of pressure, of being forced to say something intelligent and worthwhile under deadline. This pressure forms discipline. When you’re on deadline, you must inspect your thoughts as if they’re coming to you in jumbles on a conveyor belt, snatching up the promising ones while letting the rest roll off, perhaps irretrievably, back into the machine. Writing newspaper criticism of this sort means you don’t have the luxury of allowing inchoate indifference to stand as a verdict; there isn’t time for that. Indifference means you probably didn’t like what you saw, so you’ll have to unpack that response. Wesley Morris displays the same magnificent ability in his movie reviews, albeit in prose more layered and surprising than Ebert’s. If there were a book of Morris’s reviews, I would include it here.
Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father—Richard Rodriguez (1992)
This collection of essays can be fairly categorized as cultural criticism; at least, that’s how it reads to me. Interestingly, the book’s original jacket copy states, “One must summon the names of writers from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in order to describe the literary and moral fabric of the book at hand. Imagine Jonathan Swift sitting in a nightclub in Mexico City. Or imagine Thomas Carlyle writing about homosexuality and domestic architecture.” Or why not imagine a gay, brown-skinned Mexican American whose Spanish isn’t great, making sense of the history and the culture he was born into, and doing so in understatedly elegant writing? While I’ve not always agreed with Rodriguez’s politics or views, his grace and fearlessness in making his particular understanding of the Mexican and Mexican American experience central to his cultural explorations have proved lastingly inspirational.
Writing Was Everything—Alfred Kazin (1995)
Kafka Was the Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir—Anatole Broyard (1993)
Forgive me this twofer, but both of these books (Kazin’s is based on a series of lectures he delivered at Harvard), which I read when I was much younger, speak to how we live as critics and readers, and how this pursuit is barely distinguishable in its importance from the other concerns of our lives: fulfilling relationships, meaningful work, a meatloaf glazed with perfectly caramelized ketchup. They argue that vigorous engagement with literature, and the literary communities we might be lucky enough to form with similarly inclined people, gives richness to our existence away from the pages of books. That neither book is fussy or precious about criticism (or the writing life, for that matter) is especially appealing. (Here’s some choice Kazin: “It is true, all too true, that literature is besieged by movies and hijacked by television, so commercialized that the million-dollar advances handed out to macho spy novelists makes life difficult for quieter talents. But is it necessary to value literature too by all that high-minded rage, to leave no quiet spot on earth for us to rejoin ourselves by reading, as it were?”) After all these years, and despite my disagreement over the works and authors they revere in their pages, what I warmly associate with these books is the clang of the lunch bucket and the clamor of a crowded, small apartment. These books make it easy to imagine that the work of literary criticism belongs to the blue-collar milieu too.
River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West—Rebecca Solnit (2003)
My metaphor comparing our intellects to landscapes we must traverse to better understand a work (and ourselves) owes a debt to Solnit, a noted walker who has long been roaming the contours of her mind. In her book about Muybridge, whose sequential pictures of a horse in stride made him the “father of the motion picture,” she demonstrates how you can bring together many seemingly disparate threads, unified by what I’m going to call a sense of the personal. This unique book exists only as the product of Solnit’s interior expeditions, and because she found a subject that allowed her to range as widely as her curiosity and her conviction demanded. Yes, the scholarship and the research are all there, as are the gladdening sentences. But the work of making sense, of an intelligence (maybe even of a life, if that’s not too much to say?) made manifest, is what matters here too.