In a series of conversations with Merve Emre at Wesleyan University, some of today’s sharpest working critics discuss their careers and methodology, and are then asked to close-read a text that they haven’t seen before. The Review is collaborating with Lit Hub to publish transcripts and recordings of these interviews, which across eleven episodes will offer an extensive look into the process of criticism.
A friend of mine described Andrea Long Chu’s approach to criticism as perfecting a “rigorous negativity.” We know how deeply fun it can be to hate on something for long and intense periods of time, but as any good analyst might point out, there always exists a hard kernel of love in hate. It’s an abiding love for the sheer act of thinking that I sense in Andrea’s writing. She is this year’s recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and the book critic at New York Magazine. Her book Females, an extended annotation of a lost play by Valerie Solanas, was published by Verso in 2019 and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in Transgender Nonfiction. Her writing has also appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Artforum, Bookforum, Boston Review, Chronicle of Higher Education, 4Columns, Jewish Currents, and n+1, where you can find her celebrated essays “China Brain” and “On Liking Women.” At New York, she has written blockbuster reviews of books by Maggie Nelson, Ottessa Moshfegh, and, most recently, Zadie Smith, as well as long considerations of The Phantom of the Opera and, my favorite, of the children’s book The Velveteen Rabbit. I’m very happy to have her as our inaugural guest.
Merve Emre: Many people in the audience tonight are college students, and you are here, in part, as a model of how they can get from where they are to where you are. Tell us a little bit about how you ended up as the winner of 2023’s Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.
Andrea Long Chu: In college, I actually was not an English major. I liked writing, but I didn’t think about it as writing-writing. I was a theater studies major for almost all of my undergraduate career. I was reading plays, I was frustrated with them, and so I started reading about plays—not so much reading criticism as reading theory. Then I started reading theory-theory—French philosophy, all that stuff—and I realized I liked thinking about things more than I liked actual theater. I ended up switching to literature and that led to graduate school and a whole other series of disappointments.
You describe yourself as a recovering academic.
I am a recovering academic. My first experience of actual criticism, not literary criticism—like, Here’s a thing, I will criticize it—was the student paper in undergrad. I did not write for the student paper. I instead developed a reputation for very long comments on the student newspaper’s website. We had a token conservative in the opinion pages of our student paper. I made a point of always waking up early the day his column would run and writing a rebuttal and posting it. People would talk to me about it like it was a running thing, like it was a little series I was doing.
Then there was a student production of a show. There was a really positive review of it in the paper, and I had hated the show. It was a bad production of Ragtime, which is a bad show to begin with, so it probably wasn’t their fault. I wrote my own very negative review and left it in the comments section—in retrospect, an undeserved act of cruelty.
I went to grad school and was going to be in this sort of nebulous world of literature as a philosopher. I was going to do some sort of gender studies thing. I had written a piece, an academic piece, that had been published in a grad student–run journal. At an editorial meeting of that journal, I met the person who’d read it in blind review and who told me that they thought it must have been written by Lauren Berlant. At the time, this was extremely flattering—it still is flattering. I told Lauren, and Lauren was like, “Our writing is totally different.” Not different in themes, but our style is different. Lauren is slow and I’m fast. I met someone who was friends with an editor at n+1, and I wrote a similar essay. But it wasn’t a conscious decision. I just had a bunch of thoughts.
And that was your essay “On Liking Women”?
That was “On Liking Women.” I wrote it in like a week, in what I now know was my first hypomanic episode. It’s hypo because it lets you work. If it’s just mania, it interferes, but if it’s hypo, it helps. That kind of just blew everything up. For a period of time, I was like, “Oh, I’ll be an academic and a writer.” I realized that was a bad idea because I could just be a writer, and I didn’t want to do that academic stuff. It often seemed to me the stuff we were talking about in class was not the real stuff. We would be having this whole discussion about some piece of theory, or whatever it was that we were all reading. We would go around trading the kind of comments you make in graduate seminars. You’re bringing in your own interests. You’re trying to complicate things. You’re citing. At some point, in any given class, in any given meeting of any class, I would be like, “I think this is stupid. I think this thing we read is dumb, or it’s bad. Why aren’t we talking about the fact that it’s bad?” Now I do that for a living.
What is the “real stuff” for you? That is a slightly nebulous category for me. I wonder if you could, as we might say in academia, put a finer point on what the real stuff is.
Well, we could be on a panel at a conference, and you could ask me that. I would come up with a bullshit answer. Then we would go get a drink at the bar, and then we would have the real conversation, right? Some of it is actually just basic materialism. “I said this in that paper because I needed to finish the paper because I was on the plane.” The act of writing doesn’t take place outside of conditions of living.
But another part of it, I think, is trying to have some fidelity to the experience of liking or not liking something. I am a fan of knowledge, usually in the abstract. I like the idea that people have it, and sometimes I have it myself. But one of the great things about being a critic now is that I am a professional dilettante—I say this somewhat tongue-in-cheek. I have a position at New York Magazine where I write only a couple pieces a year. They give me lots of time to do research on them. This is a very unusual arrangement at this point. Most people working as critics are having to turn things out on a more frequent basis. I have the time to read everything that the writer has written before and to read secondary texts, things that they mention or that come up in the book. I know it enriches the work. But if I was doing just that, I would not say that’s criticism proper. There still has to be a part of it where I say, “This is good” or “This is bad.”
When I say of a piece of art, “This is good,” what I mean is the rest of you should think so, too—not necessarily in a dictatorial way, but it’s why anyone else should care. In theory, we write to persuade. You don’t necessarily believe me, so I’m going to write something, I’m going to give you evidence, and I’m going to make it stylish. Then hopefully maybe you will agree with me by the end of it. I don’t think that is exactly what criticism is about, but not because I don’t feel a desire to do that. I really do want to convince you if I’m talking to you. The analogy for me is flirting. A lot of people think that when you flirt, you are trying to get the person to like you. This is wrong.
You didn’t know that this was the advice you were going to get today.
It is a common misconception that when you flirt with someone, you’re trying to get them to like you. You’re not doing that. It’s not going to happen. If they don’t like you, they do not like you. It’s not going to change, it’s not a movie, right? What this means is that the only audience worth flirting with is the audience of people who already like you. You disagree with me…
I disagree with you on flirtation and on persuasion, yes.
I think I knew you would disagree with this, because you’re going to disagree with the analogy that I will make at the end of it. The only person worth flirting with is the person who’s already attracted to me. This is great. So then what am I trying to do?
The problem is that being the subject of attraction is hard. It’s hard to be the person who is desiring someone else. It is an achievement to actually create a self in a given situation that can bear the experience of desire for another person. When I flirt, I’m not trying to convince you to like me. I’m trying to give you permission to display toward me the attraction that you already have. You will appreciate this because it is hard.
The analogy, which isn’t exactly just an analogy, is this: When I am writing, I am writing for the person who already agrees with me. The problem is that being the subject of a judgment is hard and frequently throws us into panic and anxiety and lashing out. That’s why we say, “Well, it’s just me, right? Oh, I guess I just didn’t like it because of, you know, something personal.” Sometimes you mean this but usually you don’t. You just don’t want to have a fight. It’s hard to be the subject of an aesthetic judgment. It’s hard to be the subject of a judgment of taste. What I’m going to do when I write is assume that you will agree and instead spend my time creating a richly imagined space in which you can assume the subjectivity necessary to bear the opinion that you already have.
What about this wrinkle: Maybe this is just my psychological makeup, but one is very rarely attracted to the person who is attracted to you, and so why would you want to work for that person? Isn’t it ultimately more challenging, and thus more rewarding, to enter into a situation of flirtation with the obstinate other? Isn’t this what all romantic comedies are, to a certain extent, about—entering into that space of flirtation with the obstinate other and then engaging in this act of persuasion by which the two of you are in some way remade through an act of criticism?
I think we are actually potentially saying the same thing. The thing about a romantic comedy is that we know they’re going to get together. We know that they’re already attracted to each other from the moment they meet each other. That is the premise of the genre. When Harry Met Sally is about people who spend—what is it, ten years or something—trying to figure out how to tell each other that they like each other, and to tell themselves. I think sometimes that kind of obstinacy has to do with a calcification in the other that prevents them from recognizing the thing that they already like. Now, this is completely a matter of judgment. I’m hopefully not coming off like, “Come on baby, you know you like it…” There is obviously a bad version of it.
I think you believe that people have a clearer sense of their own desires than I do. This is why I think it is fundamentally possible to persuade other people—because I think most people don’t actually know what their judgments are. Most people exist in a state of ambivalent, ineffable, inchoate, unknown desire. And perhaps the word that I would add to authority is something manipulation-adjacent, or persuasion-adjacent, or charisma-adjacent. You can persuade people that you know their desires better than they do.
I agree that people don’t know what they want, don’t know what they think. That’s normal. For me, the goal is, I want you to read the piece and feel like you are having the thoughts of the piece in the moment. And that it is you. It doesn’t actually matter whether empirically you agree with it or not. For the period of time that you are reading this, you do, because you are having the thought. I’m giving it to you.
“On Liking Women” is one of the few pieces in which you have written about liking something. I wonder how that description, “rigorous negativity,” sits with you? Why, more broadly, is it easier or more pleasurable to find a vocabulary for taking something down, for disliking it, than it is for liking it or praising it? Does that have something to do with how we get people to assent to our dislikes versus how we get people to assent to our likes?
“On Liking Women” is about liking women and disliking a number of specific women. That already tells you something about liking and disliking. This is not always the case, but generally speaking, liking is sort of vague and generic by nature. “I love you.” We all say it. The fact that we all say it sort of negates any sort of specificity of it, right?
Well, we don’t say it to everybody. We say it to specific people.
We don’t say it to everybody, that’s true. But when I love something, it’s hard. Certainly for me, and I think this is true of a lot of other people, it’s hard for me to identify the things that I like about something. When I dislike something, it’s very clear to me what I dislike. But “On Liking Women” is also about the continual disappointment of a particular kind of political optimism. The last line of “On Liking Women” is “The other name for disappointment, after all, is love.”
I wrote a piece about Andrew Lloyd Webber and saw on Twitter—which is not a real measure of anything—some people saying, “Well, she just can’t possibly like musical theater then.” And I’m like, “Excuse me?” I got lunch the other day with Frank Rich, who for many years was the theater critic at The New York Times, who was known as the “Butcher of Broadway,” who had a reputation for writing negative reviews, and we were talking about this, one executioner to another. You always go in with optimism. I saw Back to the Future: The Musical. Of course, I didn’t have high expectations about what it would be, but I’m still excited when I’m in the theater. I will watch almost anything for one act, which is really part of the problem—some of these terrible shows just need to lop off the second act and they’d be totally fine. What I judge is the disappointment of the experience. It’s not coming from a place of bitterness. Bitterness is an attempt to not want anything in advance, so as to never be disappointed. That’s the John Simon approach, if you want to typify your theater critics.
The first really negative piece of criticism that I wrote was about Joey Soloway, who was a creator of Transparent and had written this very stupid memoir, and I had tweeted all my thoughts about the whole memoir and was like, “I should write this down.” Now when I think about it, it’s not that the review was too personal, because I’m not sure that I would buy into that, but I didn’t have any optimism going into it and that made a difference. I think in criticism, there is cruelty and there is viciousness. Viciousness is the attack dog that hasn’t eaten in a week, and is drooling and barking and snarling. Cruelty is the person holding the leash. That piece, I think, was vicious. But the viciousness proves that it is not coming from a place of authority, because it leaps into the exacting of violence onto the object. Cruelty says, “Well, what are we going to do about this?” There’s a restraint and a withholding. “I could be hurting you, but I won’t,” or “I won’t hurt you as much as I could.” That is the position I have, I hope, moved toward, as I look at these takedowns I have written.
What you say about authority makes me think of what you said a little bit earlier about how the purpose of criticism is judgment and how that judgment is never framed as something totally singular or personal. We do not say, “It is beautiful to me.” We say, “It is beautiful.” Many of you will recognize this as a Kantian precept. The authority comes from the subject. It comes from the subject’s feeling of pleasure or displeasure in sensing or encountering the object. But part of criticism is always to make that subjective feeling of pleasure or displeasure available to others, to get them to assent to it by presenting the object to them through your words. How do you think about the authority of the critic in that scene of judgment?
How much Kant should we do?
I’ll give you five minutes.
Okay, very quickly: Kant says there are three kinds of liking. One, liking the agreeable. That’s when I have a snack. Two, liking the beautiful. Three, liking the good. That’s when I like a car because it goes fast or when I like kindness because I think it’s good. Two of these three have self-interest involved. I want my snack to exist, I want my car to exist. Beauty has no self-interest involved. I don’t care whether the thing exists. Kant says I like it, but it’s not related to any sort of sensuous thing. It’s not related to any kind of determinant concept. I can’t say, “There’s beauty in the world and here are its qualities.” I just like it.
The reason I say this is that I don’t actually think that authority comes purely from the fact of my liking it, because we know that we like lots of things for lots of reasons. It’s not the fact that I like it. It’s the fact that in my experience of liking it, I feel very strongly that everyone else should, too. The thing that actually characterizes the experience of the beautiful is not the pleasure, per se. It’s the sudden sense of the existence of other people’s duty toward your feeling and your duty as the person having the feeling. Kant calls this subjective universality. On the one hand it’s just me, on the other hand it applies to everyone else.
Yesterday I was reading A. O. Scott’s book Better Living Through Criticism. He was quoting Kant, and he was doing a little Kant thing, and saying, well, subjective universality, we don’t know if beauty really exists like that, but maybe we can try and work toward it, and maybe that’s what criticism is doing. He’s wrong about Kant, though, and the way that he’s wrong is in assuming that beauty is a thing. For Kant—we’re still under five minutes here, folks—for Kant, it’s not about things in the world. It’s about, What can I rightly say is true, what can I rightly know? Kant doesn’t say that anything is necessarily beautiful. He doesn’t say that beauty exists. All he says is that I sometimes get a particular feeling, and that feeling makes me believe that other people exist, and that it is possible for them to judge also, and that somehow their judgments should be in line with mine. It’s the sociability of beauty as an experience.
That, I think, is where the trouble with authority comes from. We know it’s extremely difficult to justify a judgment about the beautiful, and the problem is we can’t help it. The authority, I think, is a matter of becoming responsible for the fact that you have made essentially a groundless judgment that now the rest of us have to care about.
Some people would say that it’s not just the subjective feelings of pleasure and displeasure, but it’s my compulsion to speak about it. I’m reading the critic Michel Chaouli’s forthcoming book Something Speaks to Me, and I’m paraphrasing, but he suggests that criticism is a three-part movement, a waltz, that moves from the speaker to an addressee, real or imaginary: I have an encounter with an object, I have to tell you about it, but I don’t know exactly what to say.
It’s a public, right? There is no beauty without a public. That, to me, is very revolutionary. The legacy of Kant, or even the whole Kantian tradition, can sometimes end up in this place of contemplating the beautiful, seeing the play of colors on a canvas or hearing the tone in a musical phrase or whatever. It is very isolated and often very elite. Someone like Susan Sontag is happy that most people don’t get modern art. That is a certain kind of tradition.
But if you’re attending to the way that it’s laid out, it’s about our being thrust onto each other. There’s a reason that there’s an analogy between judgments of taste and morality for Kant. When I go to a movie with my sister and I say something bad about it—or not even bad, if I just start to enumerate some of its qualities—she will get offended. And she’s right. I want to say, “Oh, come on, I’m just talking about the movie.” But she’s right. I’m saying, this is how you should feel about this movie. She resents it. We are delivered into each other’s hands.
I wonder if I could deliver us into each other’s hands, or deliver something into each other’s hands. If you could all reach under your chairs, there should be an envelope taped to the bottom.
Wow. It’s like a murder mystery.
I often feel like there are two ways of conducting a class, particularly in graduate school. One way is to talk about how criticism ought to be performed. Another way is to actually perform criticism. I have a little reading for you, and I was wondering if you could put your mind to work on the object that is in the envelope.
Interesting. Shall I read it?
I think that would be great, thank you.
“I want a dyke for president. I want a person with AIDS for president and I want a fag for vice president and I want someone with no health insurance and I want someone who grew up in a place where the earth is so saturated with toxic waste that they didn’t have a choice about getting leukemia. I want a president that had an abortion at sixteen and I want a president who isn’t the lesser of two evils and I want a president who lost their last lover to AIDS, who still sees that in their eyes every time they lay down to rest, who held their lover in their arms and knew they were dying. I want a president with no air-conditioning, a president who has stood on line at the clinic, at the DMV, at the welfare office and has been unemployed and layed off and sexually harassed and gaybashed and deported. I want someone who has spent the night in the tombs and had a cross burned on their lawn and survived rape. I want someone who has been in love and been hurt, who respects sex, who has made mistakes and learned from them. I want a Black woman for president. I want someone with bad teeth and an attitude, someone who has eaten that nasty hospital food, someone who crossdresses and has done drugs and been in therapy. I want someone who has committed civil disobedience. And I want to know why this isn’t possible. I want to know why we started learning somewhere down the line that a president is always a clown: always a john and never a hooker. Always a boss and never a worker, always a liar, always a thief and never caught.”
Let us say you were given this as part of an assignment. We could imagine different assignments that it could belong to, but let’s say this is on the history of the manifesto, which you have written about. How does your mind start to go to work on it?
It’s interesting, because of course I recognize it.
Do you want to identify it?
Well, that’s the thing—I can’t actually. I have a vague sense of it, but I can’t remember where it comes from. And the reason I can’t remember is that I feel like the first time I saw it was probably on Facebook. It’s a meme thing, and it’s an anytime-Trump-did-something-bad kind of a thing. It’s predigested for me, but it also still qualifies for the classic practical criticism, because one, I don’t know who the author is, and two, I’m not supposed to know who the author is. It is meant to sound, I think, anonymous. I mean, in a sense it is about anonymity.
Can you say more about that? In what way is this about anonymity? Or in what way is the manifesto as a genre about anonymity, more generally?
First of all, “I want someone. I want someone. I want someone”—there’s an indefiniteness to the desire for a president. We read it, and we think, First of all, I don’t actually know that this person wants all of these people for president. You also can’t have multiple people for president. One of the key parts of being president is that there is only one of them. I say this jokingly, but also very seriously, because the manifesto is partly about the fact that there can only be one president.
Just to quote myself, I once wrote a review of a horrible novel called Rodham, by Curtis Sittenfeld, that imagined what Hillary Clinton’s life would have been like if she hadn’t married Bill and decided to run for president. Part of what I hated about that book was that the presidency stands for a kind of class aspiration among a certain college-educated woman, whom we call a “girl boss.” The desire for Hillary to be president was actually less about who would be running the country and more about these women’s desires for a promotion. One of the things I said in this piece was—and I think it had the phrase “and you can quote me on this” in it—something like: “The day when the first woman becomes president, and you can quote me on this, will also be the day that every other woman in America doesn’t.” With a woman president, exactly one woman will be president and no other woman will be president. Part of it here is obviously the impossibility of the demand, which we could say is part of a manifesto in general.
There is a tension here between the desire for the office and the specific types of people that are being listed here, even in their multiplicity.
Right, of course. They are all sort of unfit for office in various ways. They say it. “And I want to know why this isn’t possible.” It’s the first time we have a different predicate on “I want.” I want to know why this isn’t possible. It’s not actually a question of whether it’s empirically possible, just like it’s not a question of whether it’s empirically possible for a woman to become president. That is a largely stupid question.
In what realm, then, is that possibility or that impossibility operating? Where is the optimism? Where is the disappointment?
You have the layer of empirical impossibility. No one’s going to vote for a dyke. No one’s going to vote for someone who’s had an abortion. There’s that kind of practical empirical layer. But there is another layer, which is that when the person who has lost their last lover to AIDS, who still sees it in their eyes every time they lay down to rest, who held their lover in their arms and knew they were dying—when that person becomes president, they stop being the person who lost their lover to AIDS. They become president. The problem is that the president, the only person who can ever be president, is the president.
To swerve to a slightly different question: You mentioned that you recognize this because it had been remediated for you by its appearance on Facebook. That was probably in 2016 or thereabouts, even though—I will give something away—this was written in 1993. It has become repurposed for a different set of, let us say, mainstream political initiatives or protests. That being said, even though it comes to you remediated, do you like it? What is your affective response to it?
You’re asking me to try and set aside the fact that it’s been remediated?
Yes. It struck me that that was the first thing you said, and saying that comes with its own kind of judgment baked into it—you saw this on Facebook as something being posted somewhat disingenuously or without full acknowledgment of what its origins were, or it was being co-opted for this, that, or whatever political purpose.
Right, right. I mentioned that to give myself more time to think. I am ambivalent about it. When I opened the envelope and saw it, I was like, Oh, okay, I can understand why I’ve been asked to comment on it. I actually had a moment of wondering what I could say about it because it seems so overdetermined. Do I like it? I think I do like it, but I—
Say more about that liking, or that inkling of liking.
Well, I have a weakness for the manifesto, as we have said, and that’s partly because I have a weakness for strongly worded and irresponsible sentences. Which is to say, on the level of style, I like it.
If I think about the political content and the way that the style relates to the political content, there is a risk with the manifesto. There’s something a little facile about it. There’s a naiveness that is being performed and that is cut into by the end. “I want to know why this is impossible” is the moment when it’s both acknowledging the impossibility of the demand and also protecting itself a little bit. But it doesn’t change the fact that there is still this presidential imagery I don’t like. I don’t care about the president being a dyke or having an abortion or having lost a lover to AIDS or anything. I care about the material effects of the policies the president makes. I care about what the president actually does. It’s easy to see how something like this in post-Hillary mourning turns into “If only we had someone who was ennobled by their oppression as president.” That is noxious to me.
Let me give you something else to care about. It comes from those last three sentences. “And I want to know, I want to know why we started learning.” Those are not questions of identity. Those are questions of knowledge. How did we learn this? How did we come to accept this as truth? Do you care more about questions of knowledge? Is the manifesto actually asking us to care more about questions of knowledge, knowing the impossibility of the possibilities that it is giving us?
I think that is a fair reading of it. You’re not meant to actually assent to the desires. They’re not statements of fact. You’re not expected to necessarily go along with it. But the manifesto leaves something in its wake, and that could be a desire to know more.
This is about criticism, too, not exactly in the aesthetic sense, but in a way that’s not totally unrelated. You and I were talking about the critic having authority. Criticism and authority have a long history of being correlated to each other in a political sense. Partly there’s the fact that this was published, which has certain implications. You can say certain things without fear of a certain reprisal from the state. But also, it’s about the presidency.
I want to understand why the president can’t be a critic, essentially. I want to understand why we have knowledge that’s occluded about the way that we select the president—the hidden requirements of the job. In a sense, they’re not hidden. If you grew up in the United States, you were taught certain things in civics class, and in elementary school, and sometimes we continue to believe those things uncritically. But the presidency itself can’t be a space of real thought, and this may not be the president’s fault. It is a problem of authority.
Say this person gets what they want. One of these people becomes president, or they all become president. It’s also dramatizing the question, Well, okay, what else would we do then? What other organization could we have that didn’t involve having to vest someone with authority to sort out our differences for us when they become too difficult to bear anymore? I think the manifesto does kind of tie itself into a knot that way. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing about that.