Joyce Carol Oates’s most recent novel, The Man Without a Shadow, was published in January. She is currently a Visiting Professor in the English Department at the University of California at Berkeley.
 (March 2016)

Unflinching About Women

Lucia Berlin, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1963
What I hope to do is, by the use of intricate detail, to make this woman so believable you can’t help but feel for her. —Lucia Berlin, “Point of View” In “Point of View,” Lucia Berlin’s most complexly imagined short story, a female writer confides in us, her readers, her …

Joan Didion: Risk & Triumph

Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, Malibu, California, 1977
We are uneasy about a story until we know who is telling it. —Joan Didion, A Book of Common Prayer It is rare to find a biographer so temperamentally, intellectually, and even stylistically matched with his subject as Tracy Daugherty, author of well-received biographies of Donald Barthelme and Joseph Heller, …

Inspiration and Obsession in Life and Literature

Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot: The Reader Crowned with Flowers (Virgil’s Muse), 1845
This is not a traditional lecture so much as the quest for a lecture in the singular—a quest constructed around a sequence of questions: Why do we write? What is the motive for metaphor? “Where do you get your ideas?” Do we choose our subjects, or do our subjects choose us? Do we choose our “voices”? Is inspiration a singular phenomenon, or does it take taxonomical forms? Indeed, is the uninspired life worth living?

The Remains of the Britons

Kazuo Ishiguro, North London, 2010
Kazuo Ishiguro’s enigmatic new novel, The Buried Giant, is a coolly orchestrated text in which ideas about human nature, human memory, and the vicissitudes of a war-tormented history constitute the essential drama; it is not a book essentially about the experiences of hapless Briton and Saxon characters as they are moved about the landscape like chess pieces in a game beyond their comprehension.

Witness to the Unknowable

Kabul, Afghanistan, 2001; photograph by Alex Majoli
“And this, also, has been one of the dark places of the earth.” This mordant pronouncement of the seagoing storyteller Marlow, uttered at the outset of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, seems to reverberate through Zia Haider Rahman’s remarkable postcolonial novel In the Light of What We Know. It is …

The Real West, At Last

Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, 1946
When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. —John Ford Already in the 1880s a cannily vulgar mythologizing of the Old West had begun. Here are Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday awkwardly impersonating themselves in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in Denver, as reported in Larry McMurtry’s radically distilled …

Shocks of Recognition

Lorrie Moore, Madison, Wisconsin, 2009
As Coleridge famously remarked of Wordsworth that one might recognize his poetry anywhere, so readers of Lorrie Moore are likely to recognize her prose instantaneously: a unique combination of wit, caustic insight, sympathy for the pathos of her characters’ lives, and that peculiar sort of melancholy attributable to time too long spent in the northern Midwest where late-afternoon snow acquires a spectral blue tinge.


Mike Tyson and his trainer, Cus D’Amato, before Tyson’s first professional fight, Albany, New York, 1985
The afterlife of a champion boxer recalls Karl Marx’s remark about history repeating itself first as tragedy, then as farce. Even when the boxer manages to retire before he has been seriously injured, it is not unlikely that repeated blows to the head will have a long-term neurological effect, and the accumulative assaults of arduous training and hard-won fights will precipitate the natural deterioration of aging; it is certainly likely that the boxer has witnessed, or even caused, very ugly incidents in the lives of other boxers. As welterweight champion Fritzie Zivic once said, “You’re boxing, you’re not playing the piano.”

Animal De-Liberation

A tamed chimpanzee at Albert Schweitzer’s mission hospital, Lambarene, Gabon, 1954
He who understands baboons would do more toward metaphysics than Locke. —Charles Darwin In The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), Charles Darwin tacitly diminishes the difference between “man” and “animals” by matter-of-factly conflating, in passages fascinating and rich in detail, close examinations of human beings and …

The Visionary Detective

Derek Raymond, Paris, 1990
Minimalism in fiction is rarely conjoined with outbursts of passionate lyricism, and still more rarely do novels about crime and detectives carry out a philosophical quest. Derek Raymond’s much-admired “Factory” novels are bold and intriguing hybrids: they are idiosyncratic police procedurals narrated by an unnamed Detective Sergeant of the London Metropolitan Police who so identifies with the victims of his investigations that he becomes involved in their (imagined) lives and is drawn, often at great risk to himself, into their (imagined) suffering.

In a Trance of Dread

Louise Erdrich, circa 2001
The loss of their land was lodged inside of them forever. —The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich Dense with meaning, both symbolic and literal, the first scene of Louise Erdrich’s fourteenth novel, the National Book Award–winning The Round House, involves an arduous attempt at the pruning of small trees …

A Very Sad Freud

Sigmund Freud with his mother and sisters, including Adolfina (center), at their father’s grave, Vienna, 1897
All normal people are normal in the same way; each mad person is mad in his own way. —Freud’s Sister Like the fine mist of poison gas that hisses into the Nazi death chamber at Terezín at the terrifying conclusion of Freud’s Sister, obliterating the carefully preserved memories that comprise …

Cards of Identity

Zadie Smith, New York City, May 2012
In its assiduously detailed evocation of the multicultural neighborhood of Willesden, in northwestern London, where in 1975 she was born and where she now lives for part of the year, Zadie Smith’s NW is a boldly Joycean appropriation, fortunately not so difficult of entry as its great model.

The Mystery of Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens in 1850, when he was writing David Copperfield
Is Dickens the greatest of English novelists? Few would contest that he is the most English of great English novelists, and that his most accomplished novels—Bleak House, Great Expectations, Little Dorrit, Dombey and Son, Our Mutual Friend, and David Copperfield—are works of surpassing genius, thrumming with energy, imagination, and something resembling white-hot inspiration; his gift for portraiture is arguably as great as Shakespeare’s, and his versatility as a prose stylist is dazzling.

The Ghost of Desire

Drawing by Edward Gorey
In his beautifully spare poem “The Ovenbird,” Robert Frost concludes: The bird would cease and be as other birds But that he knows in singing not to sing. The question that he frames in all but words Is what to make of a diminished thing. “What to …

In a Panic About Love

Jeanette Winterson and her adoptive father at the beach in Blackpool, England, 1964
The one who breaks the silence is never forgiven. —Jeanette Winterson Surprises abound in Jeanette Winterson’s painfully candid and often very funny memoir of her girlhood in a North England household ruled by an adoptive Pentecostal mother—the “flamboyant depressive” Mrs. Constance Winterson. (“Mrs. Winterson” is the name by which the …

Where No One Has Ever Gone

Science fiction is a mode of romance with a strong inherent tendency towards myth. —Northrop Frye Margaret Atwood’s eclectic and engaging miscellany of essays, reviews, introductions, and “tributes” is a literary memoir tracing the myriad links between science fiction and literature, and relating both to those archetypal forms and structures …

The Cure!

John Everett Millais: Ophelia, 1852. ‘Paintings of drowned people, I thought, tend to show them serene,’ Tim Parks writes in Teach Us to Sit Still. ‘Millais’s Ophelia is transformed into something more beautiful than she was alive.’
Teach us to care and not to care Teach us to sit still Even among these rocks…. —T.S. Eliot, “Ash-Wednesday” In 1971, forty-year-old Ram Dass, formerly Richard Alpert of Harvard University, published one of the most widely read and influential “wisdom” books of the twentieth century, whose …

A ‘Tenuously Reformed Pervert’

James Ellroy, New York City, 1989
God engages me through women. My task has always been to bring women to God. —James Ellroy James Ellroy is, he tells us, “lurchlike big and unkempt.” He’s a “dirty-minded child with a religious streak”—his first “booze blackout” is at age nine. He “brain-screens” and “scopes out” girls and soon …

The Camera at Ringside

Christian Bale as Dicky Eklund, Mark Wahlberg as Micky Ward, and Melissa Leo as their mother, Alice Ward, in The Fighter
In his portrayal of the talented but unexceptional athlete who makes of himself through dogged, diligent training a “champion”—if only junior welterweight—Mark Wahlberg is quietly convincing, the film’s anchor as he is the film’s core; his is a steady, stolid performance, subtly nuanced in the way of the young Al Pacino—a kind of “acting” indistinguishable from “real life.” By contrast—and the contrast is considerable—Christian Bale as Dicky Eklund, Micky’s half-brother and trainer, gives a tour de force performance, not unlike Joe Pesci’s in his first major film role as LaMotta’s manic brother Joey in Raging Bull.

The Fighter’s Cruel Art

A still from The Fighter (2010)

The Fighter might more accurately have been titled The Fighter and His Family: it’s a boisterous, brilliantly orchestrated ensemble piece at the paradoxically near-still center of which is an Irish-American boxer (Mark Wahlberg), whose once-promising career, like his grim hometown, Lowell, Massachusetts, is on what appears to be an inevitable downward spiral. Just nominated for seven Academy Awards—including best picture and Christian Bale as supporting actor, the current favorite in that category—the film is based on the life and career of former junior welterweight champion Micky Ward, most famous for his three brutally hard-fought bouts with Arturo Gatti in 2002–2003. It is also a group portrait of working-class Irish-Americans in a blighted, postindustrial landscape: the brawling, clannish, emotionally combustible Ward-Eklund family for whom Micky is the great hope and from whom, if he wants to survive, let alone prevail as a boxer of ambition, he must separate himself.

My Son, My Son!

Paul Auster, Prospect Park, Brooklyn, 1987; photograph by Dmitri Kasterine, a selection of whose portraits of writers and artists is on view at the National Portrait Gallery, London, through April 3, 2011
Of literary genres none has so diversely and so wonderfully flourished in recent decades as the memoir—not the more staid, stately, chronologically determined life-memoir or autobiography but the highly individualized, often short, lyric memoir of crises, of which William Styron’s Darkness Visible (1990), Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes (1996), and Joan …

Sex, Farce & Futility

Adam Thirlwell, London, 2009
Just as the pearl is the oyster’s affliction, so style is perhaps the discharge from a deeper wound. —Gustave Flaubert, quoted in Adam Thirlwell, The Delighted States Though differing radically in subject matter, scope, and ambition, Adam Thirlwell’s first three books—the blithely narrated novels Politics (2003) and The Escape …

Unsparing Visions

Evgenia Citkowitz, Los Angeles, June 2010
How coolly poised, Evgenia Citkowitz’s prose! And how elegantly and richly detailed her fictional worlds! It’s something of a shock then to realize that in this debut collection the young author is depicting individuals devastated by emotion, if not decorticated, numbed—like the betrayed and left-behind wife of the ironically titled …

Ardor in Amherst

Jerome Cheryn in his Paris apartment, circa 2004; photograph by Jerry Bauer. The painting in the background is by J. L. Fleury.
Of literary sleights of hand none is more exhilarating for the writer, as none is likely to be riskier, than the appropriation of another—classic—writer’s voice. In recent years there has emerged a company of remarkably imaginative, sympathetic, and diverse fictional portraits of literary predecessors: Michael Cunningham’s The Hours (Virginia Woolf); …

‘Who Do You Think You Are?’

Of writers who have made the short story their métier, and whose accumulated work constitutes entire fictional worlds—William Trevor, Edna O’Brien, Peter Taylor, Eudora Welty, and Flannery O’Connor come most notably to mind—Alice Munro is the most consistent in style, manner, content, vision. From the first, Munro exhibited a remarkable gift for transforming the seemingly artless—”anecdotal”—into art; like the short-story writers I have mentioned, Munro concentrated upon provincial, even backcountry lives, in tales of domestic tragicomedy that seemed to open up, as if by magic, into wider, deeper, vaster dimensions.

The Witchcraft of Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson, 1938
We eat the year away. We eat the spring and the summer and the fall. We wait for something to grow and then we eat it. —Merricat, We Have Always Lived in the Castle Of the precocious children and adolescents of mid-twentieth-century American fiction—a dazzling lot that includes the tomboys …