• 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,

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  • 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

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  • 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.

    BORN LOSERS, BY BARBARA SKELTON (1965)

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

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  • 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.

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  • 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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