The Best of Literary Criticism in 2014


I’ll give it to you straight: 2014 was a weird year in literary criticism. There were a lot of “hybrid” pieces, the kind that I’m not altogether fond of. But there were, to be sure, a number of substantial essays and reviews that worked to open up possibilities in literary writing. Here, with mere hours remaining in the year, are the best pieces of literary criticism (that I can remember) from 2014. Did I miss something? Too bad. 2014 is over, and it doesn’t make sense to have two rage years in a row.

Chris Kraus, “The New Universal,” Sydney Review of Books

Chris Kraus, “Discuss Rules Beforehand,” The Believer

I would argue that “The New Universal” by Chris Kraus is the most important piece of literary criticism in 2014. It charts the emergence of autofictional narratives — the most important literary development in 2014 — from all the way back to 1990s queer and feminist literature. Then it surveys the work of important women writers and editors in contemporary NYC. Though the essay is brief, it signals a turning point in American letters, one that will become clearer, I think, in the next few years.

“Discuss Rules Beforehand” is another great piece of writing, this time on the writer Kathy Acker, whose work I admittedly just began to read in 2014.

Teju Cole, “Black Body: Rereading James Baldwin’s ‘The Stranger in the Village'” The New Yorker

In a year where the media began to pay attention to the ongoing murder of black citizens at the hands of white police officers, literary attention understandably turned to James Baldwin, America’s greatest essayist. Teju Cole’s revisiting of Baldwin’s “The Stranger in the Village” was one of my favorite such visitations in 2014.

Tom McCarthy, “On Realism and the Real,” London Review of Books

Literary critics for some reason believe that words can physically record life on the page in the manner of a movie camera. On a daily basis, I read writing from critics who do not understand the words of Richard Rorty: “The world is out there, descriptions of the world are not.”

So it’s a useful thing when, once in a while, a novelist comes along and fires a silver bullet into the wooly heart of criticism. In this case it happens to be the pseudo-vanguardist Tom McCarthy, who writes:

Let’s start with ‘realism’, since it’s the easiest target of the lot. Realism is a literary convention – no more, no less – and is therefore as laden with artifice as any other literary convention.

If only the conversation ended there.

Elif Batuman, “Marriage is an Abduction,” The New Yorker

The best piece on one of the most talked about novels of the last two years.

Ben Lerner, “Each Cornflake,” London Review of Books

In fifty years, Ben Lerner’s review of Knausgaard’s Boyhood Island will be remembered alongside Christian Lorentzen’s review of his 10:04. Why? Because it all forms the critical basis of a deeply self-aware and altogether new form of autofictional writing, one that I believe signals the end of postmodernism in fiction. This is the best novelist-on-novelist book review of the year, and here is its conclusion:

Knausgaard catalogues the particulars he did not see as a way of restoring, in memory, the self that dissolved along with the phantom face. And then Knausgaard moves thirty years into the future, into the present tense of writing, and describes his own visage reflected vaguely in the window before him, as if in dark water. It is the face of the man-child as he embarks on My Struggle: a work of genius, a fictional farewell to literature.

Christian Lorentzen, “Back to the Present,” Bookforum

Lorentzen’s unerring deadpan has made him one of America’s invaluable critics, even if he writes from London. It’s rare that he comes right out and praises a novel, so it was no surprise that his high commendation for Lerner’s 10:04 had people talking (and tweeting):

This is a beautiful and original novel. Lerner’s book is marked by many reminders of death and dying: Ben’s faulty aorta, the ecological turmoil suggested by two superstorms. But 10:04’s prime theme is regeneration, biological and artistic, and it signals a new direction in American fiction, perhaps a fertile one.

Nell Zink/Matthew Jakubowski, “Purity of Essence: One Question for Nell Zink,” The Paris Review

Nell Zink/Anna Purcell, “‘It’s A Scintillating And Tragic Literary Jewel’: An Interview with Nell Zink,” Emily Books

Nell Zink/Michele Filgate, “Authors’ favorite books: The ultimate literary guide to 2014,” Slate

Can a writer establish herself as the slyest and perhaps funniest surveyor of contemporary American literature on the basis of three interviews? Maybe.

Dwight Garner, “The New American Love Story, Lived in the Shadows: ‘Preparation for the Next Life’ by Atticus Lish,” New York Times

The best short review of the year for a novel that deserves it.

This is an intense book with a low, flyspecked center of gravity. It’s about blinkered lives, scummy apartments, dismal food, bad options. At its knotty core, amazingly, is perhaps the finest and most unsentimental love story of the new decade. It’s one that builds slowly in intensity, like a shaft of sunlight into an anthracite mine.

Michael Robbins, “Frederick Seidel’s Bad Taste,” Post Road Magazine

The best extended poetry essay of the year, on one of our most controversial and misunderstood poets.

For if we saw the conditions of modernity as the hell they are, flensed of our illusions of taste, Seidel’s personality would no longer appear as a grotesque hyperbole but as entirely adequate to his surroundings. All other poets would then seem cowardly devotees of litotes.

Frank Guan, Stu Watson, Robert C.L. Crawford, Prelude Issue #1

Sharp, measured, and remarkably broad essays on poetry by (very) young writers who care deeply about its history and the contemporary scene.