• September 30, 2019

    The Morality Wars Revisited

    The musician and producer Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) recently posted to her Instagram a snapshot of a book review by George Packer in The Atlantic which sparked a minor political scuffle among her followers. The review, ostensibly of Dorian Lynskey’s The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984, was framed as highlighting the novel’s enduring importance while also exhorting readers to remember that the Thought Police are coming for us from both sides of the aisle. It’s the kind of rote, moral didacticism you might expect from a writer like Packer, but the excerpt that Clark

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  • July 23, 2019

    Reading Whiteness

    Because whiteness is a social and historical and imaginary phenomenon, not a visible, verifiable set of qualities, those of us who live in a profoundly racialized society like the United States acquire a racial awareness largely through stories, indirectly, through implication and absorption, long before we start naming names. Whiteness stands at the center of our power structure, associated with control, authority, and violence, and thus this automatic, almost autonomic recognition is often a matter of survival. So many American stories about whiteness begin here: I am safe, or I am in danger.

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  • March 28, 2019

    Learning from Beyoncé

    Beyoncé Knowles-Carter makes perfect pop songs that also lend themselves to nuanced discussion of race, gender, sexuality, class, feminism, social justice, and so much more. For the past decade, I have incorporated her music into my women and gender studies curriculum. In class, I pair her songs and music videos with writing by black women from throughout US history, honoring and centering their voices. This often leads to fun, memorable, and academically rigorous conversations about Queen Bey that also celebrate the history of black feminism—and challenge the overrepresentation of white male

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  • February 10, 2019

    Love Letters

    I’m not the first, and certainly won’t be the last, person to unhelpfully ask, “Why doesn’t anyone write letters anymore?” Some of the best and most interesting writing has been done for an audience of one, without pretension. Letters are intentional but rarely contain the guile of the novel or tact of a published essay. Nobody’s posing or at least not very well.

    Letters mean, as Amy Hempel puts it, putting your cards on the table. As she writes in her 1997 novella, Tumble Home, “Trying to reach a person means asking the same question over and again: Is this the truth, or not?” Writing a

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  • November 14, 2018

    Outrageous Clarity: The Fictions of Amélie Nothomb

    With Amélie Nothomb’s latest, Strike Your Heart, the Francophone author of twenty-five books seems to have finally found some of the American attention she deserves. (I’m basing this assessment in part on the displays of almost every New York City bookstore’s front table.) Europeans have long been wild about Nothomb: The king of Belgium named her a baroness, she’s won several of the continent’s most respected literary prizes, and articles from overseas claim that fellow Parisians treat her like a celebrity whenever she ventures out in public. She is prolific, with a precise and distinctive

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  • June 01, 2018

    The Roots of the Alt-right

    During the last presidential election cycle, you may have read reports describing the alt-right—a loosely organized group of anti-PC, anti-feminist, race-obsessed online warriors—as a strange, newly created beast. But in many ways, the movement is simply a continuation of dark trends that have long been present in American society.

    A few disparate elements came together to create this motley 2016 insurrection: the videogame culture war that became known as “Gamergate,” the outrage, fanned by mainstream outlets like Fox News, of white men offended by perceived censorship on campuses, and a

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  • February 06, 2018

    Marriage Reimagined

    It is easy to view the vast and varied landscape of marriage in the present day as a radical departure from a more conservative past. But many of these marriage alternatives—including polyamory, open relationships, and the rejection of marriage altogether—have existed for as long as marriage has. In some cases, we appear downright quaint when compared to our predecessors. Models for non-traditional coupling have long been found in fiction and nonfiction alike. Ultimately, the question of who to marry and how—or if at all—is a question of how to live. We’ve been tinkering with the answer for

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  • December 01, 2017

    "We Are Revolution": Introducing Asia's Proletarian Lit

    During the last election cycle, the American working class got a lot of airplay. Donald Trump’s rhetoric was a throwback to a different era of politics and a different economy. Talk of American workers often included overt and coded criticism of China, which was portrayed as a villainous and devious nation that had stolen jobs from deserving Americans. Of course, the Asian workers (many of whom are not Chinese) who were supposedly responsible for America’s declining fortunes were never mentioned.

    In the past, American labor movements produced literature that was both popular and politically

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  • Cover of Watson's Will You Die for Me?
    November 20, 2017

    The Manson Family

    [Editor's note: This article originally appeared in 2009.] The Manson Family has been plumbed and probed inside out and upside down—there’s Joan Didion’s The White Album, Jerzy Kosinski’s Blind Date (Kosinski narrowly missed becoming a sixth victim at the Tate-Polanski residence), and more recently Zachary Lazar’s Bobby Beausoleil–driven Sway. These books compliment Helter Skelter, Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry’s best-selling classic of true crime. You’ve no doubt read these, but here are a few other titles that any Manson syllabus should contain.

    Eric Banks is the former editor of Bookforum

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  • September 08, 2017

    Women in Rock (Criticism)

    Rock criticism has long been kind to a certain species of (male) character: wannabe experts who are prone to ranting and/or raving and proudly displaying their knowledge of niche subjects. It’s hard to think of an analogous stereotype for women critics, a fact that points to the historical lack of opportunity for women in this area as well as the diversity of hard-to-pin-down work that standout writers like Ellen Willis, Ann Powers, Daphne Brooks, and Jessica Hopper have produced.

    When Willis was the New Yorker’s pop-music critic, from 1968 to 1975, it was unusual for a woman to have such a

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  • June 29, 2017

    Civilizations in Crisis: Chinese Speculative Fiction

    In the Chinese literary world, speculative fiction has long been a necessary means of critique and protest against an overbearing regime. Science fiction authors create new (often dystopian) universes as one of the few ways to criticize the government and contend with the legacy of the cultural revolution. In China, the state presides over most of the publishing houses, so when writers want to explore forbidden ideas about progress, humanity, and the balance between individuality and the greater good, it’s often safer to package them in the guise of speculative fiction. Still, the authors’

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  • June 07, 2017

    Reading Play

    Whether or not you consider yourself a gamer, video games have probably found their way into your life. Maybe you spend hours lining up gemstones, hypnotized on your daily commute. Or perhaps you roam the streets, scanning the landscape with your phone and searching for pocket-sized monsters; or live a second life, work a second job, and loyally tend your Facebook farm. Players love these games, but critics have struggled with how best to examine them, partially because video games defy categorization. They often have filmic elements such as mise en scene, a soundtrack, and a classic narrative

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