Sasha Frere-Jones

  • syllabi December 06, 2019

    Variety and Vitality in Pop Criticism

    In a review of Ian Penman’s excellent essay collection It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track, I talk about the chaotic, bossless froth of pop-music criticism. I conclude that the practice is healthy. In support, I offer this bowl of noodles, an undisciplined syllabus designed to index the variety and vitality of critical writing tethered to pop. I didn’t look for anything—they came to mind, unbidden. First, some pieces that have been on my counter for a year or so, and, after that, older essays that still guide me.

  • interviews December 03, 2019

    Sasha Frere-Jones talks with poet Ariana Reines

    Ariana Reines’s A Sand Book was published in June of 2019 and longlisted for the National Book Award in September. It’s almost four hundred pages long, generous and radiant and brutal and patient and punishingly good. It pivots to truth, as Alice Notley once defined it: “a working active beingness.” A Sand Book lived in my bag all summer, nothing like an obligation and everything like a friend. The twelve sections could easily be free-standing volumes, but they churn in tandem, smoothly, inducing various states: ecstatic neutrality, detailed refusal, unworried celebration. The narrator studies

  • New as Foam, Old as Rock

    Pop critics are a sensitive lot. We fret about not being taken seriously and our heroes not getting a spot in the marble. Somehow the economic downturn hit us hardest, click-horny editors happened only to us, and the corrosives of social media burned us worst. And yet! We dropped into this foamy chaos of our own accord, this liminal gig with the lightest of accreditations and a very short stack of traditions to deform, or defend.

    At least some of this sense of insult is a response to real tendencies. Over the past fifty years, the music critic has gently shifted in position, from antagonistic

  • Blinded by the White

    Novelist and teacher Jess Row has been thinking about racial identity for a while. That idea winds through his two story collections—The Train to Lo Wu and Nobody Ever Gets Lost—and is central to Your Face in Mine, “a novel in which a young white man undergoes ‘racial reassignment surgery’ to become black,” to use Row’s description. In his new collection of essays, White Flights, Row tries to determine how whiteness can be found in language (music and writing both qualify). White Flights is a frantic loop, though, full of strong analyses that are suddenly abandoned while Row takes off into a

  • File Under . . .

    THE FINAL DRAFT OF THE POWER BROKER, Robert Caro’s portrait of the ruthlessly productive NYC parks commissioner Robert Moses, came in at over a million words. “Not a rough draft, the polished final draft,” Caro tells us in his brief new memoir, Working. Over 300,000 words were cut from that “final” version before it was published in 1974. (It won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography that year.) At this distance, that edit seems unwise. “Turn every goddamned page” was the rule Caro learned in the ’60s from editor Alan Hathway of Newsday, his boss at the time. Those pages removed from Caro’s draft,

  • The Story of the Eye

    John Berger became a writer you might find on television because of Ways of Seeing, the 1972 BBC series that became a short and very famous book. The show presented observations now common to pop-culture reviews—publicity “proposes to each of us that we transform ourselves, or our lives, by buying something more”—in a place (a box!) that rarely admitted critique beyond yea or nay. The book version of Ways of Seeing, which combined photos and text in a montage format, is now a staple of critical-writing syllabi. Writers like Laura Mulvey and Rosalind Krauss wrote the definitive versions of theories

  • The Reminder

    In 2006, the late teacher, critic, and blogger Mark Fisher contributed an essay called “Gothic Oedipus: Subjectivity and Capitalism in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins” to ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies. Fisher routes his discussion of Batman Begins around the gothic, noir, Lacan’s concept of the Symbolic Father, and a 2001 interview with Alain Badiou, all of which are funneled into the concept of “capitalist realism,” Fisher’s best-known idea and the title of his 2009 book.

    Capitalist realism has become an effective and portable idea because it confirms that capitalism can also

  • Of Infamous Women

    There will be people who visit you in prison, and who watch over you at first when you come out. They will try to help you, but unless they truly understand your lot, understanding your goodness as well as your badness, and sympathising with your badness as well as with your goodness, they will seem far off from you. Who knows, though, but what you may help them?

    —Constance Lytton, from Prisons & Prisoners: Some Personal Experiences (1914)

    WHAT HAPPENS WHEN you’re removed from the scrum of history, when you can’t change anything beyond your immediate experience? That’s one of the questions

  • Two Mississippi

    Faulkner had Yoknapatawpha County and Jesmyn Ward has Bois Sauvage—neither real, both true. Faulkner reimagined Lafayette County, in the northern half of Mississippi, while Ward has used Bois Sauvage in three novels to stand in for the small towns of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, which could include DeLisle, where Ward grew up. Ward’s 2008 debut, Where the Line Bleeds, is about twin brothers struggling to get by in Bois Sauvage. Salvage the Bones (2011) follows Esch, a pregnant teenager who loves Greek mythology, living in the days before Hurricane Katrina. (This won Ward the National Book Award

  • Hammer Time

    Mary Gaitskill's nonfiction differs from her fiction not in quality—the essays in Somebody with a Little Hammer are as intense as the stories—but in delivery and voice. Like Chekhov, Mary Gaitskill uses simple, concrete language to bottle human desire. (She would not use that metaphor. In fact, there are few authors less likely to resort to metaphor than Gaitskill.) Here, though, the first person allows Gaitskill to turn the camera on herself in a way that fiction precludes. In her unboxing of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, Gaitskill opens with a joke that both perforates her subject and undoes a

  • Words Into Action

    The book I have in mind does not exist, but it can. Take James Baldwin's short 1984 essay for Essence, "On Being White . . . And Other Lies," and attach it to the front of Hannah Arendt's 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism. Baldwin's tone, both elegant and impatient, carries him through a brief description of how the concept of whiteness (and the State of Israel) is maintained. Arendt focuses, nominally, on anti-Semitism, imperialism, and totalitarianism. These categories are wide enough that she is able to describe many distinct realities, possibly from a point in the middle distance,

  • Exile on All Streets

    Zadie Smith's Swing Time is light by design but as powerful as its predecessor, NW. Where that book vaulted a reader down the block, Swing Time carries you gently to a finish that is bloodless and brutal. The two novels are siblings, rooted in the same slice of northwest London, though Swing Time casts out into New York and West Africa. Themes found in all of Smith's novels appear: the clash between various Anglophone cultures; a friendship falling out of alignment when only one of the friends hits the big time; and the ways people use each other as markers of authenticity.

    Swing Time is

  • Out-of-Office Message

    Joshua Ferris’s fiction reverses the daily grind—characters wake up at the office and gradually wind their way home, to a place they wouldn’t have recognized at the beginning of the day. His novels are meditations on labor and alienation in contemporary America, stocked with characters for whom life is a disease at once mediated, ameliorated, and worsened by work. Ferris’s debut, Then We Came to the End (2007), about the decline of a loopy bunch of passive employees at an ad agency, is part of a continuum that emerged first in television shows and movies, starting with Mike Judge’s 1999 film

  • Madness and Civilization

    On January 30, approximately 180 people overfilled an auditorium in the New York Public Library to witness an event titled (after Musil, in part) “Cabinet on Trial: A Magazine of No Qualities?” Forty-five issues into Cabinet’s run, which began thirteen years ago, a hefty compendium called Curiosity and Method: Ten Years of Cabinet Magazine is being published. This large orange tome defines itself bluntly, and early: “THIS BOOK IS AN ENCYCLOPEDIA.” Typical entries include “Mauve,” a short essay on the chemical and cultural components of the dye, and “Public Relations,” a history of the corporate