• Simson Petrol/Wikimedia Commons
    July 28, 2022

    Unconventional Diaries

    Who can resist a diary? They promise intimate revelations—the confidences that let us glimpse the human condition, which we turn to literature for but don’t always find—alongside the rhythms and texture of life as we live it, day by day. And each diary is unique; each represents a specific set of circumstances met by a specific mind. It’s fun to dip into John Cheever’s and then Franz Kafka’s, like moving between an icy pool and a hot tub—a pleasant shock.

     At its worst, of course, a diary can be a dutiful recording that fails to come alive. What memoirists and fiction writers do is considerable

    Read more
  • Dionne Brand, Listening for Something..., 1996. Adrienne Rich and Dionne Brand. National Film Board of Canada
    February 16, 2021

    A constellation of books that teach us to reimagine the present

    Towards the end of the 1996 documentary, Listening for Something…, Dionne Brand gently corrects Adrienne Rich, specifying that Brand does not write “for” Black people, but “to them.” The differences between these two approaches are both subtle and profound. “For” implies a gifting, something that can be accepted—or put on a shelf and ignored. “To” implies a momentary communion, and asks for engagement and togetherness. While the entire conversation between these two brilliant poets gives the audience plenty to think through some twenty years later, it is Brand’s remark that I’ve carried with

    Read more
  • Portrait of James Baldwin with the statue of Shakespeare Albert Memorial. Photo: Allan Warren/WikiCommons
    October 13, 2020

    Reading amid damaged life

    There is an admonition James Baldwin made somewhere that sticks with me. It moved me enough to make a note on a scrap of paper—too hastily to cite title, text, page number. “Baldwin does not say that systems of power are unimportant,” I scratched out. “He insists that liberation is also a mandate on individuality: how one separates oneself from the ‘habits of thought [that] reinforce and sustain the habits of power.’”

    It’s a good motto—to recognize and resist such habits of thought—when writing about sex, power, and media, as I have done quite a bit. It is a useful frame for any subject that

    Read more
  • July 02, 2020

    Writing Motherhood

    Several years ago at a friend’s wedding reception, the mother of the groom said to me, “I hope someday you get to experience the joy of a child.” She paused for a moment, then followed up: “Or perhaps you don’t need to, since you’re a writer.” Though many might object to the idea that a book and a child are interchangeable, there’s a long history of comparing—and conflating—these two creations. (After all, what was Ulysses if not Joyce’s attempt to rival parturition in linguistic form?) Writers, both those who are mothers and those who aren’t, have long sought to demonstrate how caring for

    Read more
  • Olga Tokarczuk. Photo: Jacek Kołodziejs
    February 13, 2020

    The Nobel Women of Eastern Europe

    Of the fifteen women who have received the Nobel Prize in Literature, six are from Eastern or Central Europe. Born between 1891 and 1962, in the stretch of land from East Germany to Belarus, these Nobel women differ wildly in the way they write—especially about power and hopelessness, two subjects they all share. There’s Elfriede Jelinek, whose 1983 novel The Piano Teacher uses BDSM as a way of talking about abuse and deviance. Then there’s Svetlana Alexievich, whose renderings of Chernobyl testimony are as spare and haunting as the exclusion zone itself. And, of course, there’s Olga Tokarczuk,

    Read more
  • Unaccompanied by Javier Zamora
    February 06, 2020

    Our Dreams Are Bigger Than Your Walls

    In books on the borderlands, the white gaze abounds: Latinx authors are told there’s just no budget for our stories, while seven-figure advances are granted to establishment writers who consider the border from a distance. Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt, a book about a woman and her son fleeing Mexico for the United States, was quickly anointed by Oprah Winfrey as a must-read. The fact that it was written by a white, nonmigrant novelist at first failed to register. (Soon after, nearly one hundred authors asked Winfrey to reconsider.) The controversy was the latest illustration of how literature

    Read more
  • Born Losers by Barbara Skelton

    Everybody Works

    Unlike television—where every profession is indicated through props, like a cup from Starbucks—novels often let their characters do the work. Work is a fount of material, what with the complaining, cheating, procrastinating, backbiting, tedium. Not working too. Being unemployed is taxing! Every novel about a rich person who doesn’t work could be marketed with the tagline Everybody works. And who can argue with that? Not a writer.


    Before Tama Janowitz’s Slaves of New York (1986), there was Born Losers, a story collection by Barbara Skelton. The first story,

    Read more
  • Rosalía's El Mal Querer
    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.

    Read more
  • 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

    Read more
  • 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.

    Read more
  • 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

    Read more
  • 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

    Read more