Check Your (Literary) Privilege

photo by Chester Higgins Jr.  / The New York Times

photo by Chester Higgins Jr. / The New York Times

Jess Row is stealthily becoming our most subversive and progressive literary critic.

You probably know Jess Row for his fiction—The Train to Lo Wu and Your Face in Mine—or maybe for the beautiful little piece he wrote for Fiction Advocate not long ago. But over at The Boston Review, Row has been publishing a series of critical essays about privilege and point of view in literature. These essays are so calm, so deliberate, and so authoritative, that unless you read them all at once, you might miss how comprehensive and devastating Row’s critique really is.

In “The Novel Is Not Dead,” Row takes issue with other critics–mostly James Wood, David Shields, and Benjamin Kunkel–who assert that the best writing is engaged in depicting “reality” or “realism.” Observing that when they call for greater “reality” in fiction, they are often reinforcing their own idea of what reality is—white and privileged—Row accuses these critics of being “dogmatically bigoted.” He writes, “We need critics who set impatient standards, ask uncomfortable questions, and maintain an omnivorous appetite for the unfamiliar, the awkward, the angry, the untoward. Instead, we have a gated community, a velvet-roped garden party, a Brooklyn vs. Cambridge fantasy baseball league.”

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The car crashed into our living room the afternoon of July third. I was in the kitchen making sandwiches while my wife watched our son play in the back yard. The driver had been drinking.

A busy street dead ends into our house, and for years people have been hitting our exterior walls. Sometimes they swerve and only clip a corner of the house; sometimes they hit the brakes and skid to a stop in the driveway, denting the metal garage door.

This drunk driver never even slowed down until he was parked in our living room. His blue sedan made it all the way down the hallway, tearing out the walls of our son’s bedroom and upending our couch on his hood. He stopped just inches short of the kitchen bar.

I put my half-made sandwich down on the plate and went to the driver’s side window. The driver looked stunned. His windshield was covered in drywall dust. “Are you okay?” I asked.

“Nice couch,” he said, rubbing his jaw. The airbag left bright red marks on his cheeks. I wondered if he had head trauma.

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Non-Fiction by Non-Men: Lis Harris


In the third of her series of interviews with women who write nonfiction, E.B. Bartels speaks with former New Yorker staff writer Lis Harris.

Lis Harris was at The New Yorker from 1970 to 1995. She is the author of Holy Days: The World of a Hasidic Family (a New York Times notable book of the year), Rules of Engagement: Four American Marriages, and Tilting at Mills: Green Dreams, Dirty Dealings and the Corporate Squeeze. She has received numerous grants including ones from the J.M. Kaplan Fund, the Fund for the City of New York, and two from the Rockefeller Fund. She has been a recipient of the Woodrow Wilson Lila Acheson Wallace Fellowship twice. Harris teaches in the Writing Program at Columbia University.

EB: What first drew you to writing?

LH: I actually started out as a painter, not a writer. In my family, my brother was the writer and I was the artistic one, and we all went along these lines. He was the model, and he became a correspondent for The New York Times, and it didn’t occur to me for a long, long time that there were different models for writers, that there were different ways of approaching it. Though my eighth grade teacher once wrote on one of my papers, “You will be a writer!” Anna M. Donovan, I salute you!

EB: What about writing nonfiction in particular? Continue reading

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The Boomstick Film Club: Welcome to the Punch

Welcome to the Punch

The Boomstick

Watch it with us: Netflix streaming

One of my favorite movies in terms of sheer rewatchability is The Fugitive. Anything that involves a cop and a criminal (innocent or otherwise) joining forces to fight a common enemy is my catnip. The Netflix description of Welcome to the Punch (2013) promises just that, plus James McAvoy and Mark Strong, so I was all in. McAvoy plays the cop, Lewinsky, and Strong plays the criminal, Sternwood (not innocent at all, in this case). The movie opens with Lewinsky setting up a sting operation, defying orders to wait for backup, and going after Sternwood alone. Sternwood shoots him in the knee and escapes, and Lewinsky gets reprimanded for his recklessness. Several months later, following the shooting death of a young thug, Sternwood’s son turns up with a gunshot wound to the stomach from what turns out to be the same unidentified gun, as well as a bag full of money. By now Lewinsky is jaded and bitter, and he just wants to do his work and keep his head down. But his partner Hawks (Andrea Riseborough) convinces him that they need to keep asking questions. At the same time, Sternwood comes out of hiding to find out who shot his son and exact his own vengeance. When their paths cross again, Sternwood and Lewinsky join forces out of necessity, and they’re both forced to reevaluate their old animosity in light of the greater dangers they both face.

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Napoleon’s Other Waterloo

The Death of Napoleon

The 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo is coming up on June 18. If you are a history buff, and you want to understand this momentous occasion a little better, there are plenty of books to choose from. If you are a fiction buff, there is only one: The Death of Napoleon by Simon Leys, first published in French in 1986 and newly reissued by NYRB Classics in a translation by Patricia Cleary.

It’s not hard to imagine that Emperor Napoleon, with his network of military loyalists, could have smuggled himself out of exile on the island of St. Helena by sneaking in a body double to take his place. And, further, it’s not hard to imagine his plan going terribly wrong in one way or another, leaving an elderly Napoleon stranded on the European mainland under a false identity, roaming the new world that his conquests have created, trying desperately to get himself back in the game. That’s the plot of The Death of Napoleon, anyway. Continue reading

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Great Moments from the Sunday Book Review

FA Gilbert

David Gilbert’s opening line in his review of Aleksandar Hemon’s The Making of the Zombie Wars:

The Summer of Love rolled into town and left behind an S.T.D. otherwise known as 1968.

Read the rest of the review at the New York Times online.

David Gilbert is the author of & Sons, which we reviewed (with fewer great lines).


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Did You Hear? Beat It (Demo)

New music! Sometimes old music. Music that we love!

This week I’m doubling down with another song that everyone has already heard.

Apparently Michael would completely arrange his songs in his head, and since his voice was the only instrument he could play, he used it to transcribe what he came up with. The precision of his a cappella isn’t all that surprising, but the completeness of the arrangement is what gets me. Assuming this was the first incarnation of this song, it’s remarkably similar to the final version we all know.

What a crazy, messed up super-genius that guy was.

– Brook Reeder


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5 Questions for Angela Readman

Don't Try This at Home - Angela Readman

“I cut my boyfriend in half” are the first words in Angela Readman’s debut collection of stories. From there it only gets weirder. In “There’s a Woman Works Down the Chip Shop,” a mother turns—inexplicably—into Elvis. A girl helps her father with bizarre taxidermy in order to save the family in “The Keeper of the Jackalopes.”

Don’t Try This at Home includes the story that landed Angela Readman on the short list for the Costa Short Story Award in 2012, and the story that won it for her in 2013. You can read some of her best work here and here.

We asked the author 5 questions.

What do you think your readers think of you? Are they right? Continue reading

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