Diane Johnsonis a novelist and critic. She is the author of Lulu in Marrakech and Le Divorce, among other novels, and a memoir, Flyover Lives. (May 2016)

Very Big in LA

Jack Warner with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, stars of the Warner Brothers film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, circa 1962
Jean Stein’s West of Eden is an oral history about Los Angeles, shaped from interviews collected over a period of thirty years. It focuses on five influential civic founders and major figures in the early cinema, beginning in the 1930s with the Dohenys, one of the great LA fortunes, now …

What Do These People Want?

Jonathan Franzen, 2002
Admirers of Jonathan Franzen’s witty, brilliantly observed novels of contemporary American family life—The Corrections and Freedom—will find that his new novel, Purity, departs from his previous allegiance to comic realism; it’s a complex narrative of fates intertwined and twinned, international crimes, dark secrets, a whirl of events unfolding at fairy-tale …

Daddy’s Girl

Harper Lee with Mary Badham, who played Scout in the 1962 film of To Kill a Mockingbird
Since its publication in 1960, Harper Lee’s best-selling To Kill a Mockingbird has been described as America’s favorite book. It is required reading in many high schools and junior high schools and in schools in some foreign countries, and continues to sell more than a million copies a year. In …

Self-Reliance

Rachel Cusk, Wells-next-the-Sea, Norfolk, August 2014
Rachel Cusk’s new novel, Outline, has been praised as a fresh direction, perhaps an artistic advance from her previous work. Her earlier novels are well written, conventional, and self- revealing; and Outline is well written, arty, and reticent. She has written seven novels before it, receiving a Whitbread Prize for …

Who Is Not Guilty of This Vice?

Ségolène Royal, François Hollande, and Valérie Trierweiler just after Hollande’s presidential election victory was announced, Paris, May 2012
Love makes the world go round, says the poet, while the cynic says it’s money; and Peter Toohey constructs an entertaining argument for jealousy being the wellspring of a much greater part of our emotional lives, and of a larger proportion of literature, law, and daily existence, than we may have thought.

They’ll Make You a Writer!

A writers’ workshop on the lawn in front of the Old Capitol building at the University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1940s
This past summer, as every summer, well-known writers were teaching in creative writing seminars, workshops, conferences, and residential programs, and hundreds of people attended, at Bread Loaf and Sewanee, Sun Valley and Squaw Valley, and dozens of other places. This fall, thousands more students will be enrolled in long-term writing …

Scientology: The Story

Tom Cruise and David Miscavige, head of the Church of Scientology, at the grand opening of the new Scientology church in Madrid, September 2004
Not to be read home alone on a stormy night: Going Clear, Lawrence Wright’s scary book about Scientology and its influence, with its accounts of vindictive lawyers and apostate captives confined in the “Hole,” a building that held dozens of people at a time. It’s a true horror story, the most comprehensive among a number of books published on the subject in the past few years, many of them personal accounts by people who have managed to escape or were evicted from the clutches of a group they came to feel was destroying them.

At the Slumber Party

Sheila Heti, Toronto, 2006
The heroine of Sheila Heti’s novel How Should a Person Be? is called Sheila Heti, alerting the reader to its position on an arbitrary interface of fact and fiction, where it profits from both the confidential charm of personal confession and the privileged freedom of the imagined. This is very …

Mothers Beware!

French children at an école maternelle, or free public nursery school, Neuilly-sur-Seine
As long as children need to be born and taken care of, certain disputes, now renamed “the war on women,” seem irreducible about the woman’s place, with established political equations (stay-at-home mom = Republican; working mom = Democrat), even when these aren’t universally the case, as plenty of stay-at-home moms plan to vote Democratic, and vice versa. In the meantime, the conflict between motherhood and career remains as divisive as any of the other cultural issues that viscerally affect Americans.

The Storyteller and the Kid

Russell Banks with one of his dogs in the Adirondacks, 2009
Toward the end of Russell Banks’s new novel, Lost Memory of Skin, in what might seem a digression, someone called the Writer turns up and discusses the fate of Ernest Hemingway with the main character, the Kid, a twenty-two-year-old convicted felon living in part of the Everglades. The Writer says: …

Finish That Homework!

Amy Chua with her daughters Lulu and Sophia, New Haven, Connecticut, 2011
Amy Chua is a law professor at Yale University, with two daughters whom she has raised with firmness, to say the least. That her account of some of her views and practices—standing over them at the piano for hours at a time, rejecting ill-done Mother’s Day cards or careless essays, requiring A report cards—horrified some of the wide audience for her book shouldn’t surprise. Did anyone ever admire the way other parents bring up their kids?

West Coast Delusions

T.C. Boyle on Santa Cruz Island, the largest of the Channel Islands off the coast of southern California, November 2010
No doubt we haven’t seen the last of the novel or memoir of personal angst, for a long time now the preferred mode of writing; but as the troubles of the world worsen, these can come to seem self-indulgent. Is it a moment for the didactic side of novel-writing—its old roots, suppressed or concealed in happier times—to return with a tub-thumping, Victorian roar? Such a renaissance of purpose seems a positive development, an endorsement of the slyly pedagogic nature of the novel form, bringing with it readability, solidity, suspense, and relevance—novels that make you think, as people used to say when thinking was presumed to be an honorific, against the domination of “feeling” novels that make you weep.

Paying the Right Kind of Attention

Delphine Seyrig and Giorgio Albertazzi in Last Year at Marienbad, directed by Alain Resnais and with a screenplay by Alain Robbe-Grillet, 1961
When it began, cinema was the stepchild of fiction, adopting its subjects and strategies of formal organization: screenwriters still think in “acts” (three or five), prologues, epilogues; they write in fiction’s genres—westerns, thrillers, romances. But by now, inevitably, since several generations of writers have been brought up on movies, the …

The Marrying Kind

Anne Bancroft, Katharine Ross, and Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate (1967)
Books of advice about finding love and keeping it have been around, offering formulas and nostrums to readers and believers, since the beginning of print, and so have statistics about the demise of marriage. But Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert and Marry Him by Lori Gottlieb suggest that what is new is the mindset of the intended readers. What do we take from the new sensibilities of today’s authors and readers, the thirty-somethings weighing these age-old issues? Has anything really changed?

The Way Forward

Margaret Atwood, Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Toronto, 1999. This photograph is on view in the exhibition ‘Canadian Content: Portraits by Nigel Dickson,’ at the Royal Ontario Museum’s Institute for Contemporary Culture, Toronto, through March 21, 2010.
Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska, announced on her Facebook page that she didn’t want the lives of her elderly parents or her Down syndrome infant to be judged before Barack Obama’s “death panel.” It may be that Palin has been reading the works of Margaret Atwood, the distinguished …

The Patient Talks Back

Sarah Manguso, a poet, and the author of The Two Kinds of Decay, says that her memoir “is a usual book about illness. Someone gets sick, someone gets well.” People feel a need to talk or write about their illnesses, and most of us read these accounts with close attention.

J.G. Ballard: The Glow of the Prophet

In a January 2008 Times of London article about the fifty greatest British writers since World War II, J.G. Ballard was twenty-seventh, in a list that begins with Philip Larkin and George Orwell, and doesn’t even get as far as such eminent figures as Margaret Drabble, Michael Holroyd, or Victoria …

Will to Live

Few of us lose a parent without regret and some self-reproach, some sense of things undone or injustices unredressed; it is a natural component of grief. The literature of memoirs by children of their parents, from Father and Son to Mommie Dearest—whether by Edmund Gosse or John Stuart Mill, Sean …

The Malibu Decameron

In her recent book about the novel (Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel[*]), Jane Smiley points out that while the writer gets to make the rules for his or her work, the reader has the option to read it or not, and is free to “object or …

The Triumph of Turgenev

In his novel Snow, the Turkish Nobelist Orhan Pamuk has his character Ka, a Turk living in Germany, think of Ivan Turgenev, the great Russian writer who lived most of his adult life—nearly fifty years—in Europe: Ka loved Turgenev, and his elegant novels, and like the Russian writer Ka too …

True Confessions

We might hope that the coincidence on the best-seller lists of Nora Ephron’s funny, sisterly collection of essays I Feel Bad About My Neck and Thomas Ricks’s Fiasco, a book that explores the mendacity, incompetence, and corruption of the war effort in Iraq, or, this week, Bob Woodward’s State of …

Barbara Epstein (1928–2006)

Barbara Epstein, my friend and fellow editor for forty-three years, died on June 16. She did much to create The New York Review and she brought her remarkable intelligence and editorial skill to bear on everything that appeared in these pages. We publish here memoirs by some of the writers …

In Love with Jane

In A Fine Brush on Ivory, his “appreciation” of Jane Austen, Richard Jenkyns remarks that in Austen scholarship there are “pressures which cause ordinary critical circumspection to break down,” and principal among them is “the peculiar affection in which the person of Jane Austen is held by many readers.” This …

Stiff Upper Lip

Recently Charles McGrath, writing in The New York Times, proposed that there is some hope for the short story, now that it seems to be breaking out of its refuge in academe, where it is turned out at a certain uniform level of uninspired proficiency, mostly to sustain academic writing …

False Promises

Just as civilizations have foundation myths, Americans have arrival myths, the whole collective notion of the huddled masses yearning to breathe free mixed with the particular memories of a grandparent arrived at Ellis Island or, in other parts of the country, recollections of military valor or imaginary Old World privilege, …

The War Between Men and Women (Cont’d)

Andrew Hacker’s Mismatch is a compendium of statistics from a variety of official sources like the US Bureau of the Census, the National Center for Health Statistics, even the FBI, that support his observation that the ancient gap between men and women is growing ever wider. Although many novels or …

The Art of Living

Someone a hundred years from now browsing in Dominique Nabokov’s 1998 book of photographs, New York Living Rooms,[^1] will understand the sort of room stylish, affluent, influential people considered to be tasteful and comfortable at the end of the twentieth century. Though the owners of the photographed rooms no doubt …