It could be said, with an eye roll or sardonic sigh, that the late-20th-century’s New Journalism gave way to (pop) cultural criticism gave way to, ahem, BuzzFeed. But that linear evolution leaves out a lot of really smart shit. Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead, Consider the Lobster – what anyone who knows anything about what university departments sometimes call "creative nonfiction" worships at the alter of these precursors of the self-satisfied grad student blogger, and rightly so: nonfiction often feels more direct – and more interactive – than fiction or poetry. Plus, who doesn’t love a good nuanced take on an interesting cultural figure or phenomenon?
Next week, the possibly unfairly esoteric but beloved art/culture critic Lynne Tillman will release her new essay collection, What Would Lynne Tillman Do?, through the indie publisher Red Lemonade, and it’s cause to revisit writers who face the line between themselves and the culture head on. Check out our picks for reading that goes beyond the obvious.
The Venn diagram of criticism and manifesto has a large overlap, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. Koestenbaum’s understanding of major cultural/artistic figures from John Ashbury to Lana Turner is idiosyncratic without being annoying, forceful while leaving room for readers to have the oh-my-God realizations that make reading really good essays feel really good.
Malcolm is known for her sometimes-seething criticism, and this collection of essays on well-known artists and writers certainly does not fall into the category of blind praise. The journalist turns what start out as profiles into complicated meditations on the nature of art and literature that press hard on easy understandings of either.
In this hotly anticipated genre-bender out from McSweeney’s last year, Als plays with form to craft an elegant argument out of material not always strictly nonfictional, and the result feels more truthful than what we might consider strictly truth. His challenge of the idea of categories umbrellas his experiments with form and drives home insights on race, gender, sexuality, art—all the good stuff, basically.
A lot of emphasis on the status quo circles back to the fucking thereof, but Orange’s 2013 collection is more about a subtle showcasing of why it’s fucked up. Her subjects range from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to Hawaii, but they’re connected by a critique of a society more and more mediated by, well, media, as well as Orange’s funny, intimate personal stories.
Hustvedt’s novels explore the intersection between life and art (and artists), and these essays – collected from between 2006 and 2011 – do more of the same. Despite the book’s ostensible attempt at categorisation – "Living" is personal experiences, "Thinking" is essays on psychology, "Looking" is about aesthetics and art – we all know that sections all huddle under the umbrella: but what does it all mean?
Everyone’s favourite quietly sassy novelist also writes essays, and they’re just as sadly smart as her fiction. Smith somehow manages to convey the sense of relentless questioning of what it all means (see above) while also seeming to have it all figured out. That she’s also, in the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a ‘hot babe’, lends her near-deity status among public intellectuals.
While insights on life and the meaning of can often offer that aha moment so sought after in essay reading, in a sea of pop culture criticism a very specific theme can lend itself to originality. Does a memoir about writing/studying criticism count as a memoir? The Possessed engages with cultural theory, literature, and the wacky travel story to push the boundaries of both critical and narrative nonfiction in a way that will appeal to anyone who’s ever been like, ‘I should really reread Anna Karenina.’
It could be argued that interpretation is the entire point of this top ten list, as well as top ten lists in general. It could be argued that art is being subsumed by the intellectual interpretation thereof. It could be argued that this entire thing is an exercise in meaningless abstraction. A lot of things could be argued, in fact.
The sort-of manifesto is popular terrain for feminist essayists, and Ellen Willis’s "countercultural essays" focus on the decline of liberalism in the late twentieth-century and are not easily gettable. For anyone interested in radical feminism, it’s required reading; for anyone else, it’s ‘interesting’ in that doubt-creating way political essays should be.
Are you looking for a giant book to keep casually open on your bedside table? After finishing a book, do you like to feel like you know everything? Although James’ nearly-900-pager is explicitly concerned with himself – his favourite cultural figures, his interpretative "marginalia" on his favourite cultural figures – the tome-and-a-half should be commended for being up front about it — that is, after all, what cultural criticism is.
Follow Lauren Oyler on Twitter here @laurenoyler