Our quintet of quality criticism this week includes Dwight Garner on Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness, Lauren Oyler on Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror, Jabari Asim on Zora Neale Hurston’s Hitting a Straight Lick With a Crooked Stick, Tony Wood on Gabriel García Márquez’s The Scandal of the Century and Other Writings, and Joanna Scutts on Joanna Scutts on Amy Aronson’s Crystal Eastman: A Revolutionary Life.
“… incandescent … Anyone who read Greenwell’s first novel, What Belongs to You (2016), knows that his writing about sex is altogether scorching. You pick his novels up with asbestos mitts, and set them down upon trivets to protect your table from heat damage … There’s a moral quality to these extended sessions. In bed is where Greenwell’s men work out and reveal the essences of their personalities … Carnal moments are accelerants; they’re where Greenwell’s existential and political themes are underlined, then set ablaze … a better, richer, more confident novel. You intuit its seriousness and grace from its first pages. It’s a novel in search of ravishment … Greenwell is a sensitive writer about the student-teacher relationship … Greenwell has an uncanny gift, one that comes along rarely. Every detail in every scene glows with meaning. It’s as if, while other writers offer data, he is providing metadata … This novel’s second half is not quite the equal of its first. Some scenes end rather than resolve. Greenwell is a brooder. You begin to wonder how his humorlessness will wear over time … Yet there are no failures of equilibrium. This writer’s sentences are so dazzlingly fresh that it as if he has thrown his cape in the street in front of each one. Greenwell offers restraint in service of release. He catches you up so effortlessly that you feel you are in the hands of one of those animals that anesthetizes you before devouring you.”
“These critics aren’t hysterical because they have uncontrollable, misunderstood responses to social problems; they perform hysteria because they know their audience respects the existence of those problems, and the chance that they may be sincere makes them difficult to criticise … At the sentence level, it’s not difficult to understand what hysterical critics are saying; rather, it’s so easy that their lack of precision doesn’t matter … She primarily uses personal experience to substantiate—rather than ‘get to the bottom of’—her ideas, though her tendency towards hyperbole has the effect of making them seem entirely subjective … The other purpose of personal experience in these essays is to act as a kind of disclosure or waiver. It may be risky for a millennial author to declare herself delusional and claim that scamming is ‘the definitive millennial ethos’; it may also keep her from looking like a delusional scammer … In order to solve the problem of her possible wrongness, she adopts an elevated version of Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist programme, constantly contradicting herself and referring to her shortcomings, among which are attention seeking, a desire for control, and equivocation … calibrated for success in a media culture in which acknowledgment equals absolution and absolution is seen as crucial to success. Because no negative realisation about herself seems to keep her from committing the same crime in the next essay, the effect is akin to getting in ahead of criticism, PR-style, in the hope of lessening its impact on the brand … She is careful to mention her relative ‘luck’ and privilege before she complains, but usually only so that she can justify aligning herself with the suffering of people with whom she has little in common, making her experience seem worse and theirs not that bad … For readers hoping to optimise the process of understanding their own lives, Tolentino’s book will seem ‘productive’. But those are her terms. No one has to accept them.”
“…helps illuminate Hurston’s path to iconic status. Its 21 stories are presented in the order in which she composed them. As a result, readers can note the progression from earnest ‘apprentice’ works and experiments with form to the polished brilliance of her best-known stories … In many of the stories in this collection, Hurston’s men and women confront…challenges while also trying and failing at love, then trying again … Hurston is equally insistent on displaying the bruised, bloody underside of romantic misadventure … Hurston’s willingness to show warts and wounds ran counter to black bourgeois sensitivities about revealing dirty laundry in public. Against the backdrop of Harlem Renaissance bigwigs calling for positive depictions of high-achieving Negroes, Hurston unpacked the lives of everyday black people doing everyday things … Add her matchless powers of observation, exemplary fidelity to idiomatic speech and irresistible engagement with folklore, and the outcome is a collection of value to more than Hurston completists. Any addition to her awe-inspiring oeuvre should be met with open arms.”
“Throughout García Márquez’s career, literature and journalism had highly porous boundaries. His fiction and his nonfiction for newspapers and magazines can be seen as facets of a single, lifelong narrative enterprise. Indeed, we might even think of both kinds of writing not as distinct genres, to be shelved separately as fiction and nonfiction, but as reportage in different registers or realms of reality … García Márquez’s journalism almost always unfolded in the realm of print, of text on paper—seemingly a far cry from the digitized media landscape of today. Yet in his pursuit of fiction and reportage as parallel modes of collective storytelling, he explored phenomena we would find highly familiar: the blurring of genre boundaries, the feedback loops created between ongoing events and media depictions of them, the uncertain status of facts and memories … The power of the journalist comes from being able to float freely in the narrative medium that surrounds us, recording and reporting the news but also shaping the way we remember and speak about it. Throughout his career, García Márquez consistently sought to use that freedom, ranging back and forth between reportage and fiction, in order to show us how we might make it our own.”
“Who gets remembered, who gets lionized, in the history of leftist politics? Amy Aronson’s new biography of the feminist socialist reformer Crystal Eastman—the first full-length treatment of her life—grapples with this question up front. During the 1910s, Eastman was internationally famous, a firebrand speaker and leader in the fights for women’s suffrage, labor reform, international peace, and the preservation of civil liberties. She helped found the National Woman’s Party, the Woman’s Peace Party, the American Union Against Militarism, and the American Civil Liberties Union. She ran the important left-wing magazine The Liberator, was published in most of the prominent progressive journals of the era, and helped draft the Equal Rights Amendment. The Harlem Renaissance writer Claude McKay, whom she discovered and published in The Liberator, wrote that she embodied ‘all that was fundamentally fine, noble and genuine in American democracy.’ Yet today, if she’s to be glimpsed anywhere, it’s in the shadows of the more famous leaders, writers, and public figures with whom she worked: everyone from Jane Addams to Woodrow Wilson, Alice Paul, John Reed, Roger Baldwin, Helen Keller, Ida B. Wells, and Leonard and Virginia Woolf … disentangling Crystal’s story from Max’s and centering her in a full biography does more than simply amplify a drowned-out voice. It forces us to confront how we understand leadership and legacy in progressive movements.”