What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Best of 2015: Criticism

Here are my favorite critical pieces of 2015 (with a choice quote from each selection in brackets):

1. James Wood, "The Art of Witness," September 28, 2015. (“What sets his writing apart from much Holocaust testimony is his relish for portraiture, the pleasure he takes in the palpability of other people, the human amplitude of his noticing.”)

2. Dan Chiasson, "Out of This World," April 13, 2015. (“His work is replete with the transfigured commonplace, bits of the world reclaimed in his daily imaginative raids: an ‘Atari dragonfly’ on the Connecticut River, a joint smoked on a courthouse lawn, a trip to the gym, a Tyvek windbreaker.”)

3. Peter Schjeldahl, "Shades of White," December 21 & 28, 2015. [“A warm-white painting, Untitled (1973), jumps out in the show like a sunflower on fire—if, that is, you have spent enough time for your perception to adjust, like eyes in the dark, to the pitch of excruciating discrimination that Ryman demands.”

4. Kathryn Schulz, "Rapt," March 2, 2015. (“Over and over, her writing takes you by surprise: no sooner have you registered the kitchen than, whoa, there’s the snow leopard, its huge Himalayan paws leaving prints on the tile and half a domestic shorthair hanging from its mouth. I will never again not have pictured that, and, with apologies to my cat, I am glad.”)

5. Charles McGrath, "The People You Meet," April 27, 2015. (“And yet the piece gains immeasurably from being presented as factual, an account of scenes and conversations that really took place. If we read it as fiction, which it is, in part, some of the air goes out.”)

6. Judith Thurman, "Silent Partner," November 16, 2015. (“Through their decades of vicissitudes, he referred to their marriage as ‘cloudless’—even to his mistress.”)

7. Alexandra Schwartz, "The Unforgotten," October 5, 2015. (“Turning to invention to get at deeper realities of experience is fiction’s righteous mission, and Honeymoon performs it beautifully. But truthfulness isn’t the same as the truth.”)

8. Alex Ross, "Eyes and Ears," February 9, 2015. (“Last season, the Dark Horse Consort performed music of the Low Countries under the wide, sad, searching eyes of Rembrandt, who seemed ready if not to sing along then to deliver an approving grunt.”)

9. Leo Robson, "Delusions of Candor," October 26, 2015. (“He didn’t stop to clarify, but rigor was beside the point; the Vidalian bon mot was about the speaker, not about the subject.”)

10. Anthony Lane, "Good Fights," January 5, 2015. (“Dear God, the drinking.”)

Postscript: Compiling the above list, I limited my choice to one selection per writer. If I hadn't, Wood, Chiasson, and Schjeldahl would've predominated.

Credit: The above portrait of Primo Levi, by Jillian Edelstein, is from James Wood’s "The Art of Witness," The New Yorker, September 28, 2015.

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