The National Book Critics Circle regularly posts a list of five books a critic believes reviewers should have in their libraries. We recently heard from Robert Polito, who received a National Book Critics Circle Award in biography for Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson. Here are five books Robert nominated.
Norman Mailer, Advertisements for Myself
Other aspects of Mailer’s talent tended to obscure how closely observant he was, particularly of language and style. I still own the Berkley Medallion paperback I found in the racks of a drugstore near Mattapan Station one afternoon as a junior at Boston College High School. To say this book changed everything for me understates its sway over my early reading and writing. The format here, for those unfamiliar with Advertisements for Myself, mixes a compendium of Mailer’s fiction and journalism with his own autobiographical and critical commentary, and the life of the collection inheres in those candid remarks. Perhaps the most memorable sequence contrasted successive drafts of his novel The Deer Park: one revision, Mailer recounted, a change of only a single word, “was like a finger in the eye, it jabbed the unconscious, and gave an uncomfortable nip of rhythm to the mind.” Literature in my high school classes was all grand themes, along the lines of “man’s inhumanity to man” and “man against nature,” but for the first time someone was talking to me about writing as writing, a succession of tiny decisions. I was baffled, astonished, and hooked.
Still the sharpest, liveliest, and probably the one essential book about nineteenth-century American literature. Lawrence eschews argument, analysis, even advocacy as this is criticism reconceived mostly as riffs—and as seduction, parody, insult. “The furthest frenzies of French modernism or futurism have not yet reached the pitch of extreme consciousness that Poe, Melville, Hawthorne, Whitman reached,” Lawrence proposed. “The European moderns are all trying to be extreme. The great Americans I mention just were it. Which is why the world has funked them, and funks them today.”
Thomas Beer, The Mauve Decade
Beer practiced cultural criticism as performance art—every sentence a sneak attack—right from his ricocheting overture: “They laid Jesse James in his grave and Dante Gabriel Rossetti died immediately. Then Charles Darwin was deplored and then, on April 27, 1882, Louisa May Alcott hurried to write in her journal: ‘Mr. Emerson died at 9 P.M. suddenly. Our best and greatest American gone. The nearest and dearest friend Father has ever had and the man who helped me most by his life, his books and his society. Illustrious and beloved friend, good-bye!’ So she made a lyre of yellow jonquils for Ralph Waldo Emerson’s preposterous funeral and somehow steered Bronson Alcott through the dreary business until he stood beside the coffin in the damp cemetery and mechanically drawled out the lines of a dire poem.” The Mauve Decade suggests the surreal “actualities” Vitascopes shot by Edison or Lumiere in 1896, where an outlaw and a poet, a novelist, a philosopher, a child, anyone, might descend from the Brooklyn Bridge or stroll through Union Square.
Manny Farber, Negative Space
Farber once described his prose style as “a struggle to remain faithful to the transitory, multisuggestive complication of a movie image and/or negative space.”#8221; No other film critic has written so inventively or flexibly from inside the moment of a movie. His writing can appear to be composed exclusively of digressions from an absent center. One of his standard moves is a bold qualification of a qualification, in a sequence of vivid repositionings. His strategies mix self-suspicion, retreat, digression, and mulish persistence, so that Farber (Beckett-like) often proceeds as if giving up and pressing on simultaneously. There are rarely introductory overviews or concluding summaries, his late reviews in particular spurn plot summaries and might not even name the director of a film, and transitions seem interchangeable with non-sequitors. Puns, jokes, lists, snaky metaphors, and webs of allusions supplant description. Like Lawrence and Beer, Farber is one of the rare critics of modernism to write as a modernist.
This is my favorite book of any stripe, criticism, fiction, or poetry, from the last few years—smart, caustic, elegant, a piñata of surprises.
Robert Polito received a National Book Critics Circle Award in biography for Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson. His most recent books are a new poetry collection, Hollywood & God (forthcoming, University of Chicago Press) and The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber (forthcoming, Harvard University Press). He directs the Graduate Writing Program at the New School.