Welcome to Secrets of the Book Critics, in which books journalists from around the US and beyond share their thoughts on beloved classics, overlooked recent gems, misconceptions about the industry, and the changing nature of literary criticism in the age of social media. Each week we’ll spotlight a critic, bringing you behind the curtain of publications both national and regional, large and small.
This week we spoke to Bay Area author and critic, Anita Feicelli.
Book Marks: What classic book would you love to have reviewed when it was first published?
Anita Felicelli: Time travel is a little tricky for me, as I wouldn’t have existed in America (or even India) during my favorite periods of America’s literature. But I would have liked to review Nella Larsen’s Passing on a first go-round. In its consideration of what it’s like to have to suppress an oppressed identity in order to be accepted within dominant society, and conversely, what it is not to pass, I think of it as a novel that could be adapted to Indian society and probably other societies around the world as well. Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano is another transcendent favorite about alcoholism that I wish I could have grappled with as a galley. I love the inventive picaresque in Don Quixote, its satire, its metafiction, and its emphasis on the individual set against the “reality” of society—how amazing it would be to have been an early reader of it.
BM: What unheralded book from the past year would you like to give a shout-out to?
AF: This is such a tough question; with review space shrinking, there are just so many incredible books that didn’t get their due last year. I think The Water Diviner and Other Stories by Ruvanee Pietersz Vilhauer is a remarkable literary short story collection exploring the lives of Sri Lankan Americans. Vilhauer’s writing has the grace and light touch I see also in Tania James’s short stories. I was also impressed with Sarah Fawn Montgomery’s Quite Mad, An American Pharma Memoir. I think one of the most difficult subjects to plumb with any sort of persuasive acuity is one’s own mental illness and pharmaceutical experience. And Quite Mad has an important angle—it questions our existing pharmaceuticals-only approach in which social and environmental factors are given little to no consideration; it suggests more balance is in order. Sarah Stone’s Hungry Ghost Theater is a revelatory work about a family of half-Jewish artists and activists. It’s literary realism, but innovates with experimental theater bits. It has its finger on the pulse of the best pockets of the Bay Area of yesteryear, pockets now struggling to survive. I loved Meghan Flaherty’s gorgeously written debut memoir Tango Lessons. It’s partially a treatise about tango, and partially a literary memoir about touch and human connection. (Full disclosure, these last two books are by friends, but they only became friends after I’d read their books).
BM: What is the greatest misconception about book critics and criticism?
AF: I think some big misconceptions are that criticism is a lesser form of writing or the same basic task as Goodreads reviewing or that critics who don’t write reviews that are equivalent to a press release are looking for problems in books. There are some reviewers, especially those reviewing mostly to promote a fixed ideology or their own style of fiction or nonfiction, who don’t read a book more than once before committing to an opinion, or who overweight some minor problem in the text in a 500-word review, and that can be a problem. But I think those of us critics whose primary life activity is to read, who read as if books are food, are always hoping to fall in love with a new book. We don’t review a book wanting to hurt an author and we are hoping, with reading, to get beyond our pre-existing knowledge, not simply ratify our biases and life experiences, or promote a particular ideology, or rewrite the press release, or give it one to five stars.
BM: How has book criticism changed in the age of social media?
AF: So much! There are some negative aspects to social media, namely attention given to what’s loudest and most squeaky and least challenging, but one thing social media has lived up to, I think, is its promise to democratize the sharing of opinions about books and everything else. Social media is slowly democratizing book criticism; it’s making criticism more inclusive of those who were previously sidelined due to race and/or class. To the extent that the public, including authors themselves, support thoughtful book reviews and essays about books, and thereby help criticism remain vital to culture, the democratization spurred by social media can continue to have collateral benefits for authors who are marginalized because of race and/or class.
BM: What critic working today do you most enjoy reading?
AF: Another tough question. Zadie Smith is probably my favorite contemporary critic. Her prose viscerally captures the movements of a brilliant mind intent on wrestling with books, art, ambiguities and everything else from all different angles and moods. More recently, I’ve discovered the erudition of Ismail Muhammed, a critic who doesn’t examine literature as if it were an oasis from power structures. I’ve taken recommendations from Porochista Khakpour’s reviews for years and years; I think she’s one of America’s most brilliant critics because of her unparalleled attention to context, proportion, and aesthetics. Parul Sehgal is another critic I’ve enjoyed reading for years. Often she has takes about particular books (e.g. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness) opposed to my own, but it’s always fascinating to read criticism by someone with a piercing intellect and different opinions. I enjoy Charles Finch’s clarity; he often reviews books not on my to-be-read pile. But his thinking is so clear, sure, and good, it is a pleasure to read him even on books I probably won’t get around to reading.
Anita Felicelli is the author of Chimerica: A Novel (forthcoming from WTAW Press) and the short story collection Love Songs for the Lost Continent (Stillhouse Press), which won the 2016 Mary Roberts Rinehart Award. Anita’s essays, reviews, and criticism have appeared in the New York Times (Modern Love), Slate, Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Babble, Romper, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She graduated from UC Berkeley and UC Berkeley School of Law. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and a Voices of Our Nations alum. Her work has placed as a finalist in multiple Glimmer Train contests and received a Puffin Foundation grant, two Greater Bay Area Journalism awards, and Pushcart Prize nominations. She lives in the Bay Area with her family.