In this occasional series, we ask writers to name five books that belong in any book critic's library. Here's what Eula Biss–whose Notes from No Man's Land: American Essays (Graywolf) received the NBCC Award in Criticism in March–had to say.
On Being Blue, William Gass: If it were possible to produce a high definition video of what goes on between a great writer and his words, it might look like this––exhibitionist, virtuosic, and true. A bad breath of misogyny kills the thrill every now and again, but the thrust of the argument still feels right. George Orwell (in “Politics and the English Language”) and David Foster Wallace (in “Authority and American Usage”) ask critics (particularly scholars and academics) not to abuse the language, but Gass, through his own fondling, invites us to show it some love.
Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, Samuel Delany: A brilliant diptych––two essays on the value of messy, unpredictable, visceral and good-willed human “contact.” The first essay is a memoir of the old Times Square porn theaters, the second a critical essay arguing that “given the mode of capitalism under which we live, life is at its most rewarding, productive, and pleasant when large numbers of people understand, appreciate, and seek out interclass contact and communication conducted in a mode of good will.” Reading these essays side by side is an education on what these two mediums––memoir and criticism––have to offer, how they are limited, and why they belong together.
The Women, Hilton Als: In reading the lives of his “women” (including Dorothy Dean, Owen Dodson and himself) as literature, Als reminds us what literary criticism is really worth––as long as we continue to “tell ourselves stories in order to live,” our ability to critique those stories will determine how we live.
Fun Home, Alison Bechdel: While collapsing a number of tired but strangely enduring Modernist dichotomies (“low” art vs. “high” art, feminine vs. masculine, life vs. fiction) Bechdel crafts a memoir so dense with intertextual references that it becomes a meditation on the two-way traffic of narrative between lives lived and lives told. Another reminder of what’s at stake when we interpret (or write, for that matter), literature.
After Henry, Joan Didion: As always, Didion’s close readings are mostly extra-literary––court transcripts, newspaper headlines, political sound bites, off-air remarks, gestures, silences. And here again is instruction on how criticism can spill its bounds, becoming something more of an ethic than an aesthetic.