The 10 Best Literary Critics

On the final day of the year, the New York Times ran a special issue of its book review that featured six literary critics explaining what they believe literary criticism is. Two of the essays are downright rousing — Sam Anderson’s, on the role of the critic in an age of media upheaval, and Elif Batuman’s, on the need for criticism of even the best, most unassailable texts. But I’m biased, since those are two of my favorite critics.

Slate also fixed a spotlight on good criticism when it stated, for the record, that the new critic at the Times is doing a damn fine job. The examples they cite — of Dwight Garner’s hilarious-but-respectful takedowns of recent books — show exactly why today’s best criticism is so exciting.

All of which raises the question: who else is kicking ass at literary criticism right now? The answer is terribly subjective. But here, in no particular order, are my picks.

James Wood

Obviously. The king of literary criticism sits on his throne at the New Yorker and issues detailed, precise readings in support of his decree that realism is the sine qua non of literature. We tremble as we await his almighty judgments. 1 2

Elif Batuman

This wide-eyed student of Russian literature reflects on the personal aspects of classic works, reinvigorating the notion of what a critic should be. 1

Zadie Smith

She put Netherland up against Remainder for an instant-classic fight; has outgrown the fame of her debut novel to become the best British critic of her generation. 1

Daniel Mendelsohn

An expert in Classics, he demonstrates how ancient Greece and Rome texts are surprisingly alive and flourishing today. Best review of the movie 300 ever. 1 2

Caleb Crain

An expert in early American history, he gives the Daniel Mendelsohn treatment to Redcoats and Manifest Destiny and Moby Dick. 1

Rebecca Solnit

Although she rarely reviews individual books, Solnit’s searing, often political essays would be impossible without her deep understanding of an impressive range of texts. She’s what happens when a book critics transcends the form and becomes simply a writer of great cultural significance. 1

Eliot Weinberger

An absolute original (by way of near-plagiarism) he arranges seemingly random, stunning facts in such a way that they constitute gem-like stories of their own. 1

Maria Bustillos

Interested in anything that catches her attention, from Oscar Wilde to Ben Stiller, she seems stubbornly, charmingly off-the-cuff with her thorough and unique readings. 1 2

Sam Anderson

An omnivorous reader who brings a lot of humor and humility to what are, at bottom, very spot-on critiques. 1 2

Dwight Garner

The Slate article says why.

– Brian Hurley

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