5 Literary critics enlivening the art of books criticism

BY Miriam Sallon

4th Jan 2024 Books

4 min read

5 Literary critics enlivening the art of books criticism
Some say that literary critics have lost touch with modern readers—but not us. From Zadie Smith to George Saunders, these critics continue to refresh the form
In January of this year, Merve Emre wrote an article in The New Yorker discussing the tricky spot that literary criticism has found itself in, having insisted on more and more academic specialisation over the decades to the point of disassociation with the rest of the world.
There’s no such thing as a literary expert; instead we have experts in the Rural within Interwar Writing, and Deconstructive Ecocriticism of the Romantics
"Love enables knowledge, love is a kind of knowledge"
“Literary criticism,” Emre argues, “may have to be deprofessionalised before its practitioners will allow themselves to…speak in the voice of the lay reader once more.”
Well, I would argue that there are plenty of brilliant contemporary voices already doing just that. Rather than speaking to an audience of specialised scholars, these critics speak to lovers of literature.
As Zadie Smith has said, “love enables knowledge, love is a kind of knowledge."

Hermione Lee

Anyone who studied early 20th-century literature at any point in their degree will have read something by Hermione Lee, whether they remember or not. Lee is a bit of an anomaly in that she is unarguably academic, but her writing slips easily into common readership.
As well as critical essays abounding, she has a bowing shelf of biographies under her belt, including Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton and (most recently) Tom Stoppard, and a plethora of introductions to eminent literary collections.
Lee writes with both the novice and expert in mind, as she once mused in an interview for the British Academy: “I think I am a refugee from critical theory, in that I felt uneasy about a technical, professional language of critical studies.”
Lee regularly writes reviews for The New York Review of Books and the Guardian, which are always enthusiastic while remaining critical.

George Saunders

George Saunders at National Book Festival
As with many contemporary literary critics, George Saunders is a man of excessive talents. As well as being a Booker Prize-winning novelist, he is master of the short story form, winning all sorts of awards.
Whether this led him to being an expert in the form, or his expertise led him to being a brilliant writer, is hard to tell.
Having spent twenty years teaching a course on short story writing at Syracuse University, Saunders decided to publish his teachings on the Russian short story, entitled A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, which includes numerous close readings of Chekhov, Tolstoy, Turgenev and Gogol.
"What is particularly special about Saunders’ writing is that he is legitimately funny"
His articles appear regularly in The New Yorker, both fiction and non. A particular favourite is his piece on Grace Paley in which he gladly and unselfconsciously effuses, speaking both as an expert and a book lover.
What is particularly special about Saunders’ writing is that he is legitimately funny. As well as having a critical and passionate eye, he is sympathetic to his reader, giving us entertainment as well as an education.

Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith at Vancouver Writers Fest
Known most famously as the author of intimately written contemporary novels based in London (see White Teeth, NW, Swing Time), Zadie Smith has, all the while, been making a name for herself as a brilliant, incisive literary critic.
Making regular contributions to The New Yorker and New York Review of Books, Smith also served as the New Books reviewer for Harper’s Magazine in 2011. 
Her essay collection, Changing My Mind, combines her love of film and literature, and what becomes apparent is that Smith is a lover of stories as nourishment rather than academic exercises.
While she maintains an academic confidence to feast on the greats—Nabokov, Forster, Eliot—her writing is deeply personal and utterly readable.

Claire Lowden

Claire Lowden has been a regular contributor to The TLS, the Spectator and the Telegraph for some time now.
You would think that having written a novel herself (Left of the Bang, 2015), Lowden would blunt her criticisms in comradely sympathy. But her critical tooth is sharper than ever, calling Ottessa Moshfegh “a literary hack who just wants to shock people”.
Reviewing Leila Slimani’s latest book, she wrote, “You need to be a better writer than the overrated Slimani to make such a random stream of events interesting."
"If you want a shot on the literary stage, you may well be booed off"
On Richard Ford’s Be Mine, “Reading these books is the closest you’ll come to being stuck in an actual traffic jam without leaving the comfort of your armchair," and, the crushing last blow, “Why this boorish, boring also-ran is taking up fresh shelf space in 2023 is a mystery.”
That’s not to say she’s always so acerbic. Her attitude seems, rather, that if you want a shot on the literary stage, you may well be booed off. And of course, when she is complimentary, you can be sure she means it.

Stephanie Merritt

Stephanie Merritt at Hay Festival 2016
If Lowden thrives on brutal denunciations, Merritt is a soothing panacea. Former deputy literary editor of The Observer and a successful novelist herself, it’s possible she only reviews books she absolutely loves, but it seems Merritt is simply a positive person—a rare quality in a reviewer.
Writing regularly for the Guardian and the Spectator, she is unafraid to gush, recently saying of the late Hilary Mantel’s A Memoir of My Former Self, “We must be grateful that she has left us this collection of pieces," calling A K Blakemore “a breathtakingly fine writer," and Naomi Alderman, “one of the most consistently inventive contemporary British writers."
When she absolutely must criticise, she often softens the blow with plenty of praise: not a great fan of Lisa Tadeo’s Animal, for example, she can’t help but end the review with, “Taddeo’s prose glitters with all the dark wit and flashes of insight that readers and critics admired in Three Women." 
In short, she is a genuine enthusiast, enjoying multiple genres and preferring to highlight talent and beauty when she can.
Banner credit: Chris Boland / www.chrisboland.com
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