Finalists for the National Book Critics Circle prize for criticism

March 4

The formidable Mary Beard is probably the best-known classicist in the world, and she continues her learned yet accessible discourse on all things Roman and Greek in Confronting the Classics (Liveright, $28.95). In evaluating a stream of books about ancient life, Beard relies on a sturdy formula of summary, objection and conclusion, and she is crisp and effective at piercing various mossy historiographical debates. Fragmented classical sources, she observes, make it “very hard to write a convincing biography of any Roman emperor,” because the temptation is “to tell a full life story, even where there is no surviving ancient evidence at all.” Her best quality is a bracing impatience with lazy revisionism, as when she notes that “even the most glamorous rebels are just as unappealing, under the surface, as the imperialist tyrants themselves.”

Part of what makes Jonathan Franzen so fascinating is the way his immense gifts as a writer and thinker seem to exact a terrible psychic cost on him. The Kraus Project (Farrar Straus Giroux, $27) is a strange, knotty, rebarbative affair, bristling with hostility and angst. Franzen’s translations, from the German, of three long, difficult essays by the early-20th-century Austrian polemicist Karl Kraus are interspliced with lengthy annotations in which Franzen claims Kraus as an intellectual forebear who “believed that linguistic mistakes are never accidental — that bad morals and bad faith reveal themselves in bad usage.” It strikes me as admirable but perverse that the endlessly famous Franzen should choose to expend his energy on disinterring the dyspeptic, often opaque Kraus and on “texts and controversies that grow ever more antiquated and inaccessible.” In comparison with his fiction, Franzen’s nonfiction is somewhat airless and sour. In his novels, the misanthropy finds safe expulsion through the valve of satire and is balanced by a capacious compassion. Shorn of these mechanisms, his writing comes across as shrill and crabby.

Janet Malcolm, on the other hand, is like some elegant cat of the nonfiction world: silky, graceful and deadly. Forty-one False Starts (Farrar Straus Giroux, $27) displays her exquisitely calibrated journalistic sensibility, finely tuned to nuance and irony, and especially illuminating of the interior processes of visual artists. The centerpiece of the book is a long, dazzling profile of the young journalist and publisher Ingrid Sischy, who in 1986 was remaking the influential journal Artforum into a house organ for the now-famous — or notorious — wave of artists who came to epitomize the conceptual and intellectual hubris of the 1980s. Malcolm’s description of a famous blowup between Sischy and the sculptor Richard Serra, with his “aura of rough small-town America” and “aggrieved intonation of flat unyieldingness and threat,” is almost impossibly vivid, a snapshot coolly snatched from the blur of an ever-shifting cultural landscape.

Hilton Als covers some of the same territory as Malcolm — both move effortlessly along the downtown axes of art, power and fashion — but where Malcolm is cunning, detached and ironic, Als is passionate, deeply personal and often blazingly insightful. I have long had an offhand sense of Als as a reliably interesting cultural commentator, but White Girls (McSweeney’s, $24) blew me away. No one understands the intersections of race, gender and sexuality as intuitively as Als does or explodes them with more brio, and the variations he plays on the themes of identity, intimacy and race achieve a fugue-like complexity and power. When Als throws his voice, adopts personae, or assumes masks with a feral narrative hunger, you know that you are in the grip of a deeply humane writer, alive to the pathos and humor of American life.

Which brings us to Franco Moretti’s Distant Reading (Verso; paperback, $29.95), one of the most daring and intellectually exciting books of the year. Moretti is a literary critic of Italian communist provenance whose work at the Stanford Literary Lab is meant to take the measure of literature in an extraordinary new way. “World literature is not an object,” Moretti writes, “it’s a problem, and a problem that asks for a new critical method . . . a leap, a wager — a hypothesis, to get started.” Moretti’s leap involves applying ideas from science and statistics to the vast “uncharted expanse of literature” to generate “a new sense of the literary field as a whole.” He sometimes tiptoes along a line between brilliance and lunacy. For instance, he counts the number of words in the titles of 7,000 late Victorian novels and then graphs the results. There are some flaws in the project — it remains heavily Eurocentric, and it relies largely on the novel, to the exclusion of drama and poetry — but its elegance and originality far outweigh the negatives. Ask yourself this: How often do you encounter, in literary criticism, something genuinely new?

Lindgren is a writer and musician who lives in Manhattan. For comments on this prize from the chair of the NBCC criticism committee, go to wapo.st/nbcc-critic. Look for a round-up review of the NBCC Poetry finalists next Wednesday.

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