Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

Gary Giddins, Honor Moore, Michael Miller at McNally Jackson

By Jane Ciabattari

NBCC award winner in criticism Gary Giddins (left), Bookforum editor Michael Miller, and NBCC finalist in autobiography Honor Moore talked about the books they'd like to see brought back into print at McNally Jackson in Soho on March 22 as part of the NBCC Reads series. Eric Banks, NBCC president and curator for this round of NBCC Reads, kept the conversation moving. The new Espresso Machine (already printing out books for customers, some of whom are self-publishing there) loomed in the background as a promise that some books could be resurrected on the spot.

Honor Moore mentioned two books she recommends to her students:

Enter the Actress, by Rosamund Gilder (first published in 1931,reprinted in 1959), which begins with a chapter called, “From Priestess to Prostitute: the Greek and Roman Stage,” and includes a chapter on Aphra Behn, England's first professional woman playwright. Gilder is a “stylish writer from a great literary heritage,” Moore said. (Her father, Richard Watson Gilder, edited The Century.) “It's flowery writing in a good way.”

The World Split Open: Women Poets, 1552-1950, edited by Louise Bernikow, with an introduction by Muriel Rukeyser. It's a concise and thorough anthology first published in paperback in 1979 (Moore held up her well-worn copy).

Moore's third choice was a short story collection, Where the Road Bottoms Out, the first published book by the novelist and poet Victoria Redel (Loverboy, Swoon). It was published by Gordon Lish at Knopf in 1995. “It's a really good first book by a writer who has gone on to publish two well received novels,” she said.

Michael Miller said he was “flabbergasted” to discover Renata Adler's first novel, Speedboat, a 1976 NBCC fiction finalist, was out of print. He first read it when he was a copy editor at the Village Voice in the 1990s. “It was one of the first novels that felt like a New York novel,” he said. “It's almost entirely anecdotal, observations by this wise ironic newspaper reporter. It's about transplanted New Yorkers.” Adler has a third novel in the works, he said, noting that she wrote a controversial account of her three decades at The New Yorker and a famous takedown of Pauline Kael for the New York Review of Books. (The 7,646-word essay/review included lines like this: “When the Lights Go Down, a collection of her reviews over the past five years, is out; and it is, to my surprise and without Kael- or Simon-like exaggeration, not simply, jarringly, piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless.”)

Miller's nonfiction candidates: Jean Stafford's book about Lee Harvey Oswald's mother, A Mother in History, originally published in McCall's, and in book form in 1966 (it was her only nonfiction book), and James Schuyler's Diary, published by Black Sparrow in 1998. “It's a beautiful book, a must for people interested in the New York School,” Miller said. One of the virtues: “Schuyler evokes without being explicit. He was having a nervous breakfdown after nervous breakdown, but he was writing about the weather and the city. His inner life was encoded in his writing about the weather.”(Read Miller's further thoughts about those books here.)

Giddins recommended a raft of books, starting with The Great Audience by Gilbert Seldes, who “invented pop culture criticism” with his 1924 The Seven Lively Arts; Constance Rourke's Troupers of the Gold Coast (he lauded her work on Lotta Crabtree and Davey Crockett), and several books by James Gibbon Huneker, who influenced Edmund Wilson and H.L. Mencken and other critics who came after him (he died in 1921).  Giddins also mentioned Soma Morgenstern's The Third Pillar, a “pitiless, satirical, visceral, terse, and magical fiction about the Holocaust,” published in 1955 in a translation from the German by Ludwig Lewisohn (Morgenstern, a friend of Joseph Roth's, is said to be the model for Saul Bellow's Sammler). And he also recommended a new life for the Singerman books by Myron Brinig, “a gay Jewish socialist who grew up in Butte, Montana and published 21 novels, several of them bestsellers, beginning with the 1929 Singerman, which opens  with a circumcision.” Giddins' wishlist, in detail, here

The ceiling of McNally Jackson, festooned with paperbacks (Toni Morrison's Jazz, Jann Martel's Life of Pi, Louise Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise, among them) here: