'Thanks': On Negative Criticism

by Orit Gat

The commonplace complaint is that no-one reads reviews anymore, and that reviews sections are consequently a nonissue. But we should read reviews, and we should read them carefully and think about the huge role they play in a magazine. The reviews section in any given publication is oftentimes the largest section and covers a substantial number of artists. It is thus a place where we need to scrutinise representation, but also a place in which a magazine asserts its stakes: if the reviews section is an entryway into the features well, then both the artists covered and the writers assigned may be involved with it more closely in the future. It’s where writers learn to write and where artists often get their first significant bibliographical notation. Lastly, the reviews section has a significant financial role in any given magazine. The fact that advertising and revenue models are changing because of the internet only makes this more crucial. [read full essay]

The Century's Marginal Spaces

Marco Roth, The Scientists: A Family Romance

reviewed by Dan Barrow

In a 1929 essay, Walter Benjamin writes that ‘the nineteenth century did not reveal itself to Zola or Anatole France, but to the young Proust, the insignificant snob, the playboy and socialite who snatched in passing the most astounding confidences from a declining age... It took Proust to make the nineteenth century ripe for memoirs.’ The reigning peace and ignorance of the aristocratic and bourgeois interiors of the 19th century – the condition, sketched by Benjamin four years later in... [read more]

Something Is At Stake

Gillian Darley and David McKie, Ian Nairn: Words in Place

reviewed by Pete Maxwell

There is a scene from the television series Ian Nairn’s Journeys, the episode where he takes the Orient Express through Europe to its terminus in Istanbul, that everyone familiar with the architecture critic recalls. Nairn has arrived at his first stop, Munich, where he delivers a succinct interpretation of the city from atop the town hall. The camera then switches to a night shot of a fairground ride, a gentle German ballad playing in the background, then to Nairn on the ground, trapped in... [read more]

'There’s more past than present here'

Kamila Shamsie, A God in Every Stone

reviewed by Michael Duffy

In Shame, Salman Rushdie refers to the modern state of Pakistan as a palimpsest – an historical document that is barely legible beneath hundreds of years of writing, erasing and rewriting by various colonising forces, visionary leaders and military dictators. Kamila Shamsie provides another look at that palimpsest in A God in Every Stone, a novel that straddles two historical moments as two archaeologists – a master and her apprentice – look for the hidden layers in colonial Peshawar and... [read more]

Writing, Not Lack

Emma L. Rees, The Vagina: A Literary and Cultural History

reviewed by Jane Cleasby

It is virtually impossible to begin reading Emma L. Rees’ The Vagina: A Literary and Cultural History without the spectre of Naomi Wolf’s 2012 publication – Vagina: A New Biography – hovering over it. That Wolf herself offers the primary quote of praise on the back cover of Rees’ book is cause for trepidation. Thankfully, The Vagina offers none of the narcissistic memoir, dressed up in Cosmo-style, essentialist pseudo-science that is peddled by Wolf: the similarities between their two... [read more]

Free To Do the Right Thing

Daphna Erdinast-Vulcan, Between Philosophy and Literature: Bakhtin and the Question of the Subject

reviewed by Andre van Loon

What kind of people would we like to be? And, perhaps more importantly, how should other people, in an ideal world, behave? Such questions can sustain idle gossip as much as high philosophy, both perhaps driven by a feeling that what happens between us is not quite right. There is always a next time, a chance to do better; the other can be more loving, less disappointing. We – and they – can become more virtuous, more understanding. And we do not need a transcendental God, long dead or... [read more]

The Functions of Intelligence

Aaron Lecklider, Inventing the Egghead: The Battle Over Brainpower in American Culture

reviewed by Nick Witham

When I teach a special subject on the American ‘culture wars’ to final-year undergraduates, I make a specific effort to combat the disparaging attitudes they often hold about their counterparts across the Atlantic. As we discuss contemporary US thinking on issues such as abortion, gun control, gay rights and the place of religion in public life, my students often resort to declarations that Americans are ‘stupid’ or ‘crazy’, as if these designations somehow explain the strongly held... [read more]

Something To Cling To

Zoe Pilger, Eat My Heart Out

reviewed by Jessie Burton

You almost worry, reviewing a book like Zoe Pilger’s Eat My Heart Out, that you are going to sound precisely like the critic-wankers satirised within its pages – a confident, ignorant consumer of creative endeavour who would pay £500 for some ‘limited edition dead bees’ collected in a jar, or who’d call a cocktail glass in an art instalment ‘a visual madeleine.’ These people, Pilger suggests, wouldn’t know a good painting or a duff philosophy if it came and hit them round the... [read more]

The Event of the Advent

Mark Currie, The Invention of Deconstruction

reviewed by Niall Gildea

The relationship between deconstruction and historical scholarship is famously and multifariously fraught. On one level, deconstruction remains widely misrecognised as ahistorical in its attitude to language and signification; on another, it remains widely caricatured as methodologically anti-historical in its disclosure of classical metaphysics’ survival in modern epochs; on still another, certain extant historical accounts of deconstruction are often hagiographies of Jacques Derrida, which... [read more]

Always / Never

Eric Schlosser, Command and Control

reviewed by Will Wiles

A Titan II missile silo could kill you in more ways than you might expect. The nervous eye is naturally drawn to what the Titan II carried: a W-53 nuclear warhead with a yield of 9 megatons, ‘about three times the explosive force of of all the bombs dropped during the Second World War, including both atomic bombs.’ But try to forget about that for a moment. Consider instead what the warhead sat atop: a two-stage missile containing, in total, about 100,000 pounds of fuel and 200,000 pounds... [read more]

Inside the Space of the Frame

Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

reviewed by Sarah Emily Duff

The idea that only white men are capable of producing the Great American Novel remains oddly persistent. When Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom was published four years ago, the author appeared on the cover of Time, confidently labelled the Great American Novelist. As many pointed out, other novels by women which appeared at the same time could just as easily be held up as capturing something essential about early 21st-century American life: Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the... [read more]