NBCC Awards Finalist in Criticism: Joan Acocella’s “Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints”


This is the thirtieth and last in a series of blog posts by NBCC board members covering the finalists for the NBCC awards. The awards will be announced on March 6, 2008, tomorrow night, at the New School.

Joan Acocella, “Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints,” Pantheon.

In her essay collection “Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints,” Joan Acocella, who writes about books and dance for The New Yorker, strikes like lightning. She opens one of her 28 essays on artists, “American Dancer” with these lines: “With Greg Lawrence’s ‘Dance with Demons:The Life of Jerome Robbins,’ one more biographer has discovered that his subject was not always a nice person, and has recorded his shock.” Another, “After the Laughs,” begins, “Of the many rapid-burnout cases in American letters, one of the saddest is that of Dorothy Parker.” And then there is her opening sally on a “saint” essay, pointed titled “Burned Again”: “Joan of Arc movies, understandably, have always been low on sex, but in the newest entry, ‘The Messenger:The Story of Joan of Arc,’ by Luc Besson, the French action-movie director, that omission is redressed.”

Creativity, madness, and writer’s block, muses, heroes, and prophets, she examines each unflinchingly and delivers knowing evaluations and surprising reinterpretations. She knows her Nijinksy (she edited his unexpurgated diaries) and her Svevo (“We will never know what happened to Svevo in those years to lead him out of realism and into modernism. Perhaps it was just age and self-acceptance, or perhaps it was the war. But one thing we know made a difference—not as a cause but as a trigger—was Freud”).

And she has her occasional delightfully earthy moments. Describing Simone de Beauvoir’s sexually successful liaison with Nelson Algren, Acocella quotes one of the “few endearingly dirty parts” of their correspondence (Beauvoir tells Algren, in jest, that she has written a report on the sexual behavior of the American male, including “‘their peculiar ways in boat-cabins, the use they do of mirrors, chiefly of round black ones.”) Alcocella concludes, “Mirrors. Good for her.”

My favorite of Acocella’s essays is her tender homage to M. F. K. Fisher. Fisher’s anti-sentimentality, she notes, is “the mark of a fine mind—a higher form of irony—and it was part of her morality.” I’ll poach the line and apply it to Acocella. This glittering and award-worthy collection displays one of our best critical minds hard at work.—NBCC board member Jane Ciabattari

NBCC awards finalist in fiction and autobiography Joyce Carol Oates review in the New York Review of Books.

NBCC board member Jennifer Reese’s review in Entertainment Weekly.

NBCC member Kathryn Harrison’s review in the New York Times Sunday Book Review.