Critic, Book World

(Penguin Press)

Don’t Suffer in Silence: I got a letter from an aggrieved author recently that began, “I was sorry you didn’t like my book.” (No, it’s not from Bill Clinton.) The writer went on to express dismay at my characterization of his novel, and then described the experiences and research that informed the story. I appreciate everything about this letter, except that it’s private. I wish more authors were willing to respond in public to reviews of their books. Not that we need every disappointed writer to go all Alain de Botton and declare, “I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make.” But our literary culture would be richer if we could observe more interactions between authors and critics. (A couple of very smart people explain why they think this is a bad idea here.) Unfortunately, authors are routinely advised to ignore negative reviews, while positive reviews are showered with smiley faces on social media, as though literary criticism were simply an extension of book marketing. Exhibit A: Here’s a review you won’t see retweeted much: Over at the Wall Street Journal, Sam Sacks thinks Ottessa Moshfegh’s widely praised new novel “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” is full of writing “as dead-eyed and apathetic as its heroine, as though to provide a textbook example of the imitative fallacy.” He slashes on: “Moshfegh’s dubious trademark is frank descriptions of bodily excretions . . . but there’s too much maudlin pop psychology in this novel for it to be edgy or startling.” I’d love to read Moshfegh’s witty response to that critique. But I bet I won’t.


Render Unto Caesar: Bestselling religion scholar Diana Butler Bass delivered a brilliant guest sermon at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington on Sunday. Drawing from her new book, “Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks” (HarperOne), she offered a revisionary interpretation of the Gospel story of Zacchaeus, the vertically challenged tax collector whom Jesus called down from a tree. Her thesis is that gifts freely given and gratitude spontaneously expressed comprised a radical act of political resistance. After laying out the Roman system of obsequium rules that controlled Caesar’s domain, Bass concluded with a devastating critique of President Trump’s imperial expectation of tributes and blessings.

(University of Virginia Press)

Walk Home: A recent trip to Dublin and Edinburgh finally made me a fan of walking tours. Now that I’m home, I’ve spotted a book called “A Literary Guide to Washington, DC” (University of Virginia Press). The author, Kim Roberts, is a literary historian, which shows in the broad array of authors she mentions in this handy and engaging book full of photos and quotations. Walt Whitman and Henry Adams are here, of course, but also old writers who may be new to many readers, starting with the poet Joel Barlow (1754-1812). Roberts’s walking directions are easy to follow, but her tales of writers in the capital are so engaging that readers may feel they don’t even need to leave the house.

Bon Voyage: I thoroughly enjoyed Kate Christensen’s new novel, “The Last Cruise,” and, in a funny coincidence, I noticed that Barron’s is bullish on cruise ships this week, too. “Among the three publicly traded U.S. cruise operators,” Lawrence C. Strauss writes, “Royal Caribbean seems to be the best positioned.” (Book and investment advice could be my next career move!)

Another Universal Truth: A TV adaptation of Jane Austen’s unfinished novel “Sanditon” is coming to Masterpiece on PBS. Andrew Davies (“Mr. Selfridge,” “Pride and Prejudice”) has been hired to transform Austen’s manuscript into an eight-episode drama for BBC Studios. “Jane Austen managed to write only a fragment of her last novel before she died, but what a fragment,” Davies said in a statement released this week. “ ‘Sanditon’ tells the story of the transformation of a sleepy fishing village into a fashionable seaside resort, with a spirited young heroine, a couple of entrepreneurial brothers, some dodgy financial dealings, a West Indian heiress, and quite a bit of nude bathing.” No cast members have been named yet, but filming will begin next spring.

Reading and listening around: In the Guardian, Marlon James looks back at Fran Ross’s only novel, “Oreo” (1974): “ ‘Oreo’ laughs in the face of the American one-drop ideal of whiteness that produces Oreos in the first place. It revels in yet mocks its own hybridity, and that of the characters. It pulls off the unique trick of slapping white supremacy in the face, while never letting go of the ideal of (and the desire for) whiteness itself.” And LARB Radio Hour talks with Joseph O’Neill about his new story collection, “Good Trouble.” The conversation is wonderful, the accent divine.

Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post, where he hosts