Enjoyable, recent-ish literary criticism
November 29, 2020 1:48 AM   Subscribe

My mother, in her seventies, recently mentioned that she regrets not doing a degree in English - she has a degree in a different subject. She's considering doing some OU or other literature-related courses. I'd like to find a recent-ish (say last ten years) work of lit crit that she might enjoy to build on her interest in the area.

I have a degree in English myself, and I understand a book of lit crit is not the same thing, but I thought I'd like to find something insightful and enjoyable - I've read a few stand-out books about literature (often pushing into social history) which I still think about years later, and I'd like to find something like that for her. She is very widely read, particularly in the "canon". She's read a lot of history too.

I'm thinking something focussing on literary periods she doesn't know so well, perhaps eighteenth-century or earlier. Not a direct biography, though a group biography might work. Recentish, say last ten years, as I'd prefer something which would give her a sense of how critics are approaching texts now, and also earlier books I'm more likely to have read and talked about to her. No particular constraints about genre or country, though the book itself needs to be in English. It's fine if it focusses on a niche area. Nothing memoir-y about the author of the text's journey through reading (I know there are some good books like that, just not what I'm looking for at the moment.) Not looking for textbook-type surveys of a particular period. Maybe something social history-ish about reading or readers. I wondered about The History of Reading, but at £30+ it is expensive.

What lit crit has really stood out to you as engrossing and insightful, perhaps reading like a good novel?
posted by paduasoy to Writing & Language (10 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
I really liked Vera Tobin’s Elements of Surprise (comes with a spoiler warning). I enjoyed her approach to digging into the mechanics of plot and characterization (no idea how representative it is in lit crit generally, though) and connecting them to the broader goals of literature. She works at the intersection of literary criticism and cognitive science, but is appropriately skeptical of the cognitive science side of things.

I also recently enjoyed Andrew Miller’s On Not Being Someone Else but that’s a bit more first person/memoirish - in form, if not really in substance.

Great question!
posted by yarrow at 7:19 AM on November 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

This *is* such a great question! How does your mother feel about medieval literature? Adin Lears' World of Echo: Noise and Knowing in Late Medieval England is all about the way that medieval writers tried to figure out the relationship between sound and sense-making. It's an exciting, beautifully written book, it's got that social/cultural angle you mention, and I haven't stopped thinking about it since I read it.
posted by Hellgirl at 8:16 AM on November 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

Oooh! Or what about Amitav Ghosh's The Great Derangement? It's an engrossing and insightful read about the connection between literary imagination and broader cultural and political imaginations, specifically in terms of the climate crisis. It's also available in paperback!
posted by Hellgirl at 8:24 AM on November 29, 2020

Mark Doty's What is the Grass? Walt Whitman in My Life is both an excellent overall introduction to Whitman and his poetry, and a memoir of Doty's life as a gay man during and since the AIDS crisis of the 80s. It contains a couple of scenes of gay sex that might make some readers uncomfortable, but I was, overall, really impressed with it when I read it recently, and knew before I was halfway through that I'd be re-reading it.

A similar book which I haven't read yet is Rebecca Mead, My Life in Middlemarch, which is also a mix of memoir, criticism, and biography. It's been well reviewed.

You might also look for annotated editions of books she might be interested in. I recently read the annotated edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde, and I learned a great deal from the book's introductory essays.
posted by Orlop at 8:41 AM on November 29, 2020

One of the best I've read is And So We Read On, by Maureen Corrigan, NPR's literary critic, about The Great Gatsby. Here's the blurb:

While Fitzgerald's masterpiece may be one of the most popular novels in America, many of us first read it when we were too young to fully comprehend its power.

Offering a fresh perspective on what makes Gatsby great -- and utterly unusual -- So We Read On takes us into archives, high school classrooms, and even out onto the Long Island Sound to explore the novel's hidden depths, a journey whose revelations include Gatsby's surprising debt to hard-boiled crime fiction, its rocky path to recognition as a "classic," and its profound commentaries on the national themes of race, class, and gender.
posted by Brittanie at 9:06 AM on November 29, 2020

Peter Coviello is one of the most engaging writers of academic prose I can think of, and Tomorrow's Parties:
Sex and the Untimely in Nineteenth-Century America
deals with some canonical figures in a way she probably hasn't encountered. It is a book about sex and sexuality, but it's in no way prurient. Coviello has also done quite a bit of public writing (LARB and the like), so you could google him to see if his style seems like it would appeal to her.

I also have to second the recommendation for World of Echo, not (I admit) because I've read it, but because Adin is a friend of mine and I know enough about the project to be sure the book is every bit as wonderful as Hellgirl says.
posted by dizziest at 9:27 AM on November 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

Alison Light's Mrs Woolf and the Servants (2007) is perhaps more social history than literary criticism, but it's an immensely rewarding read, and when I saw your request for books that 'read like a good novel' it was the first thing that came to mind.

If you're looking for old-school close reading, Helen Vendler's collection of essays on poetry, The Ocean, The Bird, and the Scholar (2015), would be a good place to start. Or for 'something social history-ish about reading or readers', you could try Deidre Lynch's Loving Literature: A Cultural History (2015) or Leah Price's How To Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain (2012). Both of these are written in a fairly academic style, but would be a good way for your mother to, as it were, dip a toe into the waters of lit-crit and see if she likes the temperature. If you think they might be too academic for her, you might prefer something more at the level of John Mullan's The Artful Dickens (2020), which is aimed at readers outside the academy.
posted by verstegan at 4:22 AM on November 30, 2020

Sarah Bakewell's How To Live is a marvelous book, simultaneously a biography of Michel de Montaigne and a personal memoir. The social, religious, and political contexts of Montaigne's era are covered well, and the book serves as an excellent introduction to the essayist and his work.
posted by Agave at 4:33 AM on November 30, 2020 [1 favorite]

Yes, How To Live is great! I liked her At the Existentialist Café almost as much.
posted by kingless at 6:52 AM on December 1, 2020

Thank you! I was quite twitchy about asking this question but I now have loads of good options - thank you so much, and I'm glad people knew what I meant about lit crit which reads like a novel.
posted by paduasoy at 4:07 AM on December 2, 2020

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