PEN World Voices Stand-Up Critics #1: Eric Banks

By Jane Ciabattari

From April 25 to May 1, 2011, the PEN World Voices Festival presents a team of National Book Critics Circle Stand-Up Critics. These influential and celebrated American critics will appear before every Festival event with the intention to enhance Festival audience already-extensive list of must-reads. These six tireless servants of literature will rotate throughout the week to suggest individual lists of thirty meticulously tested titles. The Stand-up Critics will present  1) a contemporary novel 2) a translated book 3) a classic 4) a small/indie press title and 5) a surprise! For more information, see the PEN World Voices Festival website, See #2 here tomorrow.

Stand-up Critics:

Eric Banks is a Brooklyn-based writer and critic. He is the former editor of Bookforum, a senior editor of Artforum, and president of the National Book Critics Circle.  

Jane Ciabattari is a PEN member and author of the short story collection Stealing the Fire. Her reviews and features have appeared in Bookforum, The Guardian online, The New York Times,, The Daily Beast,, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and Columbia Journalism Review, among others. She served as president of the National Book Critics Circle from 2008 to 2011, and is currently NBCC Vice President/Online.

Rigoberto González, author of eight books of poetry and prose, is the recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships and has won the American Book Award and the Poetry Center Book Award. He is editor of Camino del Sol: Fifteen Years of Latina and Latino Writing, and is contributing editor for Poets and Writers magazine. He serves on the National Book Critics Circle board and is associate professor of English at Rutgers-Newark, The State University of New York.  

Lev Grossman is the author of Warp, the international bestseller Codex, and the New York Times bestseller The Magicians, and its sequel, the forthcoming The Magician King. He is the book critic at Time magazine and a former National Book Critics Circle board member.

Laura Miller is a senior writer at, which she co-founded in 1995. She is a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review, where she wrote the Last Word column for two years. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other publications. Miller is the author of The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, and the editor of The Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Authors. She is a former National Book Critics Circle board member.

Roxana Robinson (PEN board member, critic and author) is the author of four novels: Summer Light, This Is My Daughter, Sweetwater, and Cost; three collections of short stories: A Glimpse of Scarlet, Asking for Love, and A Perfect Stranger, and the biography Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life. For more than twenty years, she has reviewed works of fiction, biography, and art history for The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Los Angeles Times, and the Boston Globe.

The Recommendations (watch for the next installment tomorrow):

#1 Eric Banks:

Contemporary novel: C, by Tom McCarthy (Knopf). Smuggled within a Trojan Horse of a historical novel, McCarthy sets his Zelig-like protagonist on a collision course with the early twentieth century’s contours of literary modernism and technological revolution. The new wired world he discovers is one that seems both fascinatingly alien and uncomfortably familiar.

Translation: A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, by Danilo Kis (Dalkey Archive Press): Not a new translation, but a book that winds the experience of totalitarianism and tart prose about as tightly as the two can get, under a wickedly matte sheen of black humor. I can’t think of a better book to reopen on the twenty-fifth anniversary of PEN’s 1986 conference on “The Writer’s Imagination and the Imagination of the State.”

Classic: Kangaroo, by D.H. Lawrence (Penguin). It’s become fashionable to note how unfashionable Lawrence has become. This gangly novel-of-ideas, written during the author’s brief time in Australia, is a fierce picture of the author in (and as) exile, the memory of his own World War I traumas sharing the page with tantalizing threats of catastrophes to come.

Small/indie press: Seven Years, by Peter Stamm (Other Press). The most recent book from this remarkably cool Swiss stylist, Seven Years is an ice-cold study of the laws of attraction and the waywardness of desire. Yet the frigidity of Stamm’s look at an unlikely Munich love triangle is tempered by his ultimate care for his difficult-to-like characters.

Surprise! On Late Style, by Edward Said (Random House). Far from polished yet written with elegant flair, Said’s terse final book meditates on endings and impossible projects of culmination across a generous range of writers, musicians, filmmakers, and critics as cosmopolitan as its author—a reading made all the more poignant by its largely unfinished nature. In an era when too many are eager to see the humanities as an anachronism, On Late Style is a stylish retort.