While many august literary organizations choose the year’s finest novel or best work of nonfiction, the National Book Critics Circle includes among its annual prizes an award for the best work of criticism. That might sound intimidatingly cerebral, but as this year’s five finalists demonstrate, criticism is one of the most vital and expansive categories of literature.
In The Nearest Thing to Life (Brandeis; paperback, $19.95), the New Yorker critic James Wood examines the myriad ways that fiction meets our aesthetic or intellectual needs. Wood’s forte is his ability to draw upon a deep reservoir of reading to make profound generalizations about literature and the mechanics of its function. For Wood, an essentially traditionalist critic, even classic authors such as Tolstoy and Chekhov turn “out to be blasphemous, radical, raucous, erotic.” He has a way of making even dense concepts such as “life-surplus” or “metaphoricity” seem like practical tools for appreciating literature. Above all, despite his erudition, his concept of literature is generous, inclusive and fundamentally democratic: The nature of memory, Wood writes, means that “we are, in a way, all internal fiction writers and poets, rewriting our memories.”
It is not surprising to find, with Colm Toibin’s exquisite meditation On Elizabeth Bishop (Princeton, $19.95), that the masterful Irish novelist is also a critic of considerable acuity. Toibin’s sensibility is superbly attuned to that of the formidable Bishop, a poet whose shadow over the crowded landscape of 20th-century American poetry grows longer with every passing year. He shares with his subject a faith in restraint, a belief that “the smallest word, or the holding of breath, could have a fierce, stony power,” and that “words themselves, if rendered precisely and exactly with no flourishes, could carry even more coiled emotion than an ornate phrase.” Toibin reads such iconic poems as “In the Waiting Room” as an expression of “a hurt and wounded personality which sought to remain clear-eyed and calm,” putting Bishop’s sensibility at odds with the raging emotionality of the so-called confessional poetry of Berryman and Sexton.
The scholar and educator Leo Damrosch, meanwhile, has produced an outstanding book about William Blake that combines learned analysis with a warm and conversational style. The primary distinction of Eternity’s Sunrise (Yale, $30) (aside from a bizarre animus against the postwar critic Northrop Frye) is its intricate analysis of the relation between Blake’s verse and his vivid paintings and etchings — beautifully reproduced here in abundant color plates and illustrations. Damrosch also pushes back against a reductive understanding of Blake as a proto-counterculture advocate of free love; “some of the songs of Experience suggest,” in his account, “that inhibition and frustration are so deeply bound up with sexuality that they are impossible to transcend.” He is frank on his subject’s mental instability, noting that “it is hard to doubt that deep psychic disturbances do indeed lie at the heart of his work,” and that scholars who “reject the suggestion” of Blake’s madness “misrepresent the nature of his achievement,” which contains “profound insights into the divided self.”
As beautifully wrought as these three books are, they are essentially conventional literary criticism, albeit operating at a very high level. Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (Graywolf, $23) exists in its own universe. My first reaction to Nelson’s book was awestruck silence, such as one might experience when confronted with some dazzling supernatural phenomenon. Nelson is so outrageously gifted a writer and thinker that “The Argonauts” seems to operate in some astral dimension where the rules of normal physics have been suspended. Her book is an elegant, powerful, deeply discursive examination of gender, sexuality, queerness, pregnancy and motherhood, all conveyed in language that is intellectually potent and poetically expressive. Despite its strangeness, it shines with a generosity of spirit, an awareness that “any bodily experience can be made new and strange” and “nothing we do in this life need have a lid crammed on it.” She communicates the belief, both common-sensical and radical, that “the best way to find out how people feel about their gender or their sexuality — or anything else, really — is to listen to what they tell you, and to try to treat them accordingly, without shellacking over their version of reality with yours.”
Coming late to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s celebrated Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau, $24), I was still not prepared for the utter force and eloquence of this profound, passionate book. I have little to add to the general acclaim for Coates’s memoir of black life, presented as a letter to his teenage son, except two observations. The first is my belief that too little attention has been paid to Coates’s prose. It’s a marvel of compression and tensile cadences and a potent illustration of his belief that “loose and useless words were not separate from loose and useless thoughts.” The second is that what makes this book genuinely heroic is Coates’s utter refusal to soften his message or to water it down to provide emotional comfort to the reader. We normally think of truly great books as being timeless; Coates’s feels both urgently of its moment and utterly timeless, at once.
The winner of the NBCC’s criticism prize — along with the winners for autobiography, biography, fiction, general nonfiction and poetry — will be announced March 17 at 6 p.m. at the New School, 66 W. 12th St., New York. The ceremony is free and open to the public.
Michael Lindgren is a writer and musician in New Jersey.