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 Massachusetts-based critic and essayist, Becca Rothfeld.
Book Marks: What classic book would you love to have reviewed when it was first published?
Becca Rothfeld: I’m not sure I would’ve wanted to be a Jewish woman in Europe in the 1920s—so maybe this speaks more to what I would like to review now, from the safety of 21st century Boston—but I would love to have a chance to write about Italo Svevo’s neurotic masterpiece, Zeno’s Conscience, first published in 1924. It’s the pinnacle of what might be my favorite genre: long, nervous, fin-de-siecle novels with crazy, hypochondriac protagonists. Zeno, the narrator of Zeno’s Conscience, does an especially delicious job of fearing yet fetishizing illness. (As do the tubercular denizens of The Magic Mountain, which came out just one year later. In an ideal world someone would let me write an essay about illness in both books, but alas, I don’t think new translations of either are on the immediate horizon.)
BM: What unheralded book from the past year would you like to give a shout-out to?
BR: Taeko Kono’s Toddler-Hunting and Other Stories, originally published in Japan in 1961 and out in a lovely new translation from New Directions this past fall, has been criminally neglected! She’s dazzlingly dark and, to my mind, every bit as good as her better-known compatriots and sometime-contemporaries, Yukio Mishima and Yasunari Kawabata. Toddler-Hunting and Other Stories is full of women with weird, insistent appetites. It’s a joy to see women who want things so ferociously depicted so forcefully in fiction. More generally, it astonishes me and annoys me all the time that people are not fawning over Javier Marias: he’s so great.
BM: What is the greatest misconception about book critics and criticism?
BR: I don’t know that enough people have any conceptions about book critics and criticism to have misconceptions about either. I suppose, to some extent, I often encounter and often resent the utilitarian notion that the “point” of book review is just to generate a recommendation: buy or don’t buy, read or don’t read. The best book reviews are works of literature in their own right and deserve to be read and treasured as such. Think of John Updike’s or Cynthia Ozick’s criticism: the point is not the verdict but the sprawling pleasure of the sentences.
BM: How has book criticism changed in the age of social media?
BR: I try to avoid luddite-adjacent pessimism about the effects of the internet on books and book-reviewing because, at this point, it’s boring. Once glance at Twitter suffices to demonstrate that the internet makes us stupid, dogmatic, churlish, and uncharitable. Economically speaking, the internet is terrible for critics: so many great magazines no longer exist, and the ones that do can’t pay us very much. And socially speaking, I think there are a great number of pressures to conform to an increasingly uniform public-cum-professional opinion, which is disseminated and to some extent enforced via social media. And surely the way we write and “talk” online is also, in ways yet to be fully appreciated, infiltrating and altering the literature we produce, which in turn affects (probably not positively) the books we have to write about.
BM: What critic working today do you most enjoy reading?
BR: Andrea Long Chu and Tobi Haslett are both gorgeous writers. Probably my favorite of all is Amia Srinivasan, who combines such unbelievable brilliance with such unbelievable eloquence. Plus, it always makes me happy to see an analytic philosopher with a robust aesthetic sensibility—they’re such an endangered species.
Becca Rothfeld is a PhD candidate in philosophy at Harvard, where she thinks about ethics, aesthetics, and the relationship between them (among other things). She writes book reviews, essays, and the occasional art review for The Nation, The TLS, Bookforum, Art in America, The Hedgehog Review, The New Republic, and elsewhere. She is a two-time finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.