Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The 10 Best Literary Critics

the final day of the year, the New York Times ran a special issue of its book review that featured six literary critics explaining what they believe literary criticism is. Two of the essays are downright rousing — Sam Anderson’s, on the role of the critic in an age of media upheaval, and Elif Batuman’s, on the need for criticism of even the best, most unassailable texts. But I’m biased, since those are two of my favorite critics.
Slate also fixed a spotlight on good criticism when it stated, for the record, that the new critic at the Times is doing a damn fine job. The examples they cite — of Dwight Garner’s hilarious-but-respectful takedowns of recent books — show exactly why today’s best criticism is so exciting. (Garner is the chap who gave us this memorable line about graphic novels.)
All of which raises the question: who else is kicking ass at literary criticism right now? The answer is terribly subjective — there’s even an award for literary criticism at Electric Literature, where the winners change every month. But here are my picks.
James Wood
Obviously. The king of literary criticism sits on his throne at the New Yorker and issues detailed, precise readings in support of his decree that realism is the sine qua non of literature. In the past we have obsessed over his almighty judgments. 1 2
Sam Anderson
An omnivorous reader who brings a lot of humor and humility to what are, at bottom, very spot-on critiques. 1 2
Elif Batuman
This gawky student of Russian literature reflects on the personal aspects of classic works, reinvigorating the notion of what a critic should be. 1
Zadie Smith
She put Netherland up against Remainder for an instant-classic fight; seems determined to outgrow her debut novel and become the best Anglophile critic of her generation. 1
Daniel Mendelsohn
An expert in Classics, he demonstrates how ancient Greece and Rome texts are surprisingly alive and flourishing today. Best review of the movie 300 ever. 1 2
Caleb Crain
An expert in early American history, he gives the Daniel Mendelsohn treatment to Redcoats and Manifest Destiny and Moby Dick. 1
Luc Sante
Another expert who sees the influence of his subjects all around us, he loves rock music, New York City, and forgotten things. 1
Eliot Weinberger
An absolute original (by way of near-plagiarism) he arranges seemingly random, stunning facts in such a way that they constitute gem-like stories of their own. 1
Maria Bustillos
Interested in anything that catches her attention, from Oscar Wilde to Ben Stiller, she seems stubbornly, charmingly unaware of how thorough and unique her readings are. 1 2
Dwight Garner

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