• print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2020

    Mum’s Boy

    “IT WAS HIS QUOTABILITY,” observed the critic Clive James, “that gave Larkin the biggest cultural impact on the British reading public since Auden.” What comes to mind? The opening lines from “Annus Mirabilis,” certainly—“Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three”—but if there is one Philip Larkin quote even better known, it would surely be: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.”

    Did Larkin’s parents fuck him up? According to his sister Catherine (“Kitty”), ten years his senior, both parents “worshipped” Philip. All the same, they have undoubtedly been demonized—sometimes by the poet

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2020

    Going Postal

    I QUIT TWITTER and Instagram in May, in the same manner I leave parties: abruptly, silently, and much later than would have been healthy. This was several weeks into New York City’s lockdown, and for those of us not employed by institutions deemed essential—hospitals, prisons, meatpacking plants—sociality was now entirely mediated by a handful of tech giants, with no meatspace escape route, and the platforms felt particularly, grimly pathetic. Instagram, cut off from a steady supply of vacations and parties and other covetable experiences, had grown unsettlingly boring, its inhabitants increasingly

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2020

    Words of Light

    A DISAPPOINTED WOMAN should try to construct happiness out of a set of materials within her reach,” William Godwin counseled Mary Wollstonecraft after she tried to kill herself by jumping off a bridge. Virginia Woolf liked to read “with pen & notebook,” a generative relationship to the page. Roland Barthes had a hierarchical system with Latinate designations: “notula was the single word or two quickly recorded in a slim notebook; nota, the later and fuller transcription of this thought onto an index card.” Walter Benjamin urged the keeping of a notebook “as strictly as the authorities keep

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2020

    One Weird Trick

    IN FEBRUARY 2005, the literary theorist Sianne Ngai published Ugly Feelings, a book she described as a “bestiary of affects” filled with the “rats and possums” of the emotional spectrum. Instead of looking to the classical passions of fear and anger, Ngai, then an English professor at Stanford University, wanted to explore what she called “weaker and nastier” emotions. The book is divided into seven chapters, each focusing on a single “ugly feeling” such as envy, anxiety, irritation, and a hybrid of boredom and shock she termed “stuplimity.” Based on Ngai’s graduate dissertation, Ugly Feelings

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2020

    Songs in the Key of Life

    IN AUGUST 1969, the Billboard “Hot Rhythm & Blues Singles” chart was rechristened “Best Selling Soul Singles.” A new type of music had emerged, “the most meaningful development within the broad mass music market within the last decade,” according to the magazine. The genre mystified much of the mainstream press. Publications like Time announced soul music’s birth one year earlier as if it were a phenomenon worthy of both awe and condescension. Its June 1968 issue featured Aretha Franklin as its cover star and called the music “a homely distillation of everybody’s daily portion of pain and joy.”

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  • review • July 30, 2020

    In An Apartment on Uranus, Paul B. Preciado undermines geopolitical, technological, and gender binaries

    In 2008, Paul B. Preciado published Testo Junkie, which is, among other things, an influential account of his illegal self-administration of testosterone gel. Stints of heady Foucauldian theory are interspersed with powerful memoiristic passages: He writes elegiacally to a friend who recently died, begins a potent affair with the French feminist writer and filmmaker Virginie Despentes, and lyrically describes the effects of testosterone on his body and mind. With a lofty sense of ritual and menace, he compares the packets of gel to “dissected scarabs, poison bullets extracted from a corpse,

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  • excerpt • July 07, 2020

    On Charlotte Cushman, the queer Shakespearean performer who played both male and female roles

    Charlotte Cushman was once called “the greatest living actress.” In the mid-nineteenth century this queer, Shakespearean performer was all the rage. Walt Whitman called her a genius, Louisa May Alcott had a stage-struck fit over her, Lincoln made her promise to perform for him (she did) and she impressed luminaries from Charles Dickens to Henry James. She rose from poverty to become America’s first celebrity, while specializing in ambitious women and transforming how we think of Shakespeare through her male roles like Hamlet and Romeo. After becoming an icon, Cushman lived openly with her female

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  • booklist • May 28, 2020

    Tech Support

    Welcome to part three of our ongoing series about supporting the literary community during the coronavirus pandemic. This week, we focus on independent bookstores and authors in need.

    Support Bookstores

    Most stores are taking orders directly or on platforms like Bookshop.org or IndieBound. Not sure where to start? Check out the titles from the latest issue of Bookforum.

    If you feel like living a bit dangerously (while still staying inside), put your faith in booksellers’ hands. Order a secondhand mystery bag from Milwaukee’s Boswell Book Company, a “surprise-me” paperback or hardcover from

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  • print • Summer 2020

    Notes from the Cave

    A FEW NIGHTS AGO, I WAS VISITED BY AN EMAIL. Back before the world gasped, my brother, the doctor, hardly ever wrote me anything beyond a “dinner Friday y/n,” and yet here he was, in the breathless thick of it, attaching a file of 7,241 words. I’d thought that he was far out in the boroughs intubating the sick or putting them through dialysis—and he was—but somehow he’d also found the time and adrenalized energy to put more language down on the screen than I, the ostensible writer, had managed to eke out in weeks, even months. The instructions that came at the top of the email explained, or

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  • print • Summer 2020

    What’s Happening?

    IN 1974 DORIS LESSING PUBLISHED MEMOIRS OF A SURVIVOR, a postapocalyptic novel narrated by an unnamed woman, almost entirely from inside her ground-floor apartment in an English suburb. In a state of suspended disbelief and detachment, the woman describes the events happening outside her window as society slowly collapses, intermittently dissociating from reality and lapsing into dream states. At first, the basic utilities begin to cut out, then the food supply runs short. Suddenly, rats are everywhere. Roving groups from neighboring areas pass through the yard, ostensibly escaping even worse

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  • print • Summer 2020

    Coeur Values

    It’s the second week of March in Paris, and COVID-19 still hasn’t shut the city down. I am staying at the Hotel La Louisiane, the haunt of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Cy Twombly, and more—an oddball historic dive in the heart of the Sixth Arrondissement. I spend my days retracing the steps of literary and art icons and reading in cafés. I’ve been asked to write about The Heart, Marc Petitjean’s new book about Frida Kahlo’s life in Paris in 1939, and it seems to haunt me at every step. I walk over the Seine by the Louvre, which was just closed down, and

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  • print • Summer 2020

    Women on the Verge

    For many of its participants, the women’s liberation movement represented a saving break with an unremittingly bleak past. A switch flipped at the end of the 1960s, and the culture flooded with light. Where once there had been only darkness—Ladies’ Home Journal, back-alley abortions, MRS degrees—now there was feminism: Kate Millett made the cover of Time, Shirley Chisholm made the ballot, and young women picketed bridal fairs and beauty pageants that they might have attended a year before. In 1971, fiction writer Tillie Olsen remarked with awe that “this movement in three years has accumulated

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