Summer 2024

Summer 2024 cover image

Volume 112, No. 2
Summer 2024
The Yale Review

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WHAT IS CRITICISM, and why do we write it? These questions inspired a panel at The Yale Review Festival this April, and they also inspire the essays in this special issue on the past, present, and future of criticism. We live in a moment when the closing of many news­papers and magazines means the space for reviews in traditional media is ever smaller, and new forms of reviewing have emerged online. (Think Goodreads.) These facts led those of us at The Yale Review to wonder: Has something been lost over the past twenty years—or does criticism still thrive? What do we do when we talk about art? Have the ways we evaluate books changed? And perhaps most important of all: What do we need from criticism?

We can’t promise that the answers to all of these questions will be found in our pages. But some key ways of thinking about them will be.

For “The Moment,” Christine Smallwood suggests that all crit­icism is autobiography, and describes the way that the material cir­cumstances of our time shape the production of criticism. In such a world, how could the kinds of pieces one is able to write not change?

Merve Emre, for her part, offers up an entertaining history of the figure of the critic and proposes replacing the image of the critic as judge—a figure of authority and, perhaps, condemnation—with “the critic as friend.” Namwali Serpell raises her eyebrows at the navel-gazing that critics seem to love to do (and that, in some sense, we are doing in this issue) and questions why they are always so happy to criticize the state of criticism. And in a review essay of Michel Chaouli’s Something Speaks to Me: Where Criticism Begins, Brian Dillon makes a case for a “poetic criticism,” one that, instead of trying to pin down and explain works of art, articulates the confusion and opacity we often feel before them.

Elsewhere, the novelist Amit Chaudhuri reflects on being a dif­ferent kind of South Asian writer in an age of globalization, while the novelist Teju Cole revisits Louise Glück’s late work, finding in it a fable-making that was central to her artistic project. You’ll also find other delights—including Lydia Davis on the joy of absolute darkness, Tausif Noor on Alice Notley’s poetic disobedience, and Charlie Tyson on an important chapter in the history of American theater and the federal government. These pieces, when I read them, put me in mind of the work I think criticism does: it reminds us that reading is not a solitary act, in the end, but happens in a social web in which meaning is made—a web in which affinities are formed, solidarities established, and aversions understood.

This issue contains a piece of personal import to me, too: Benjamin Anastas’s moving remembrance of working with Jean Stein, who was the editor of Grand Street. Jean was a model practitioner of the genre of oral history, and a figure who effortlessly moved between—indeed, connected—myriad different intellectual and social circles. (Thus the title of Anastas’s essay: “Jean Stein’s Rolodex.”)

I worked with Jean in the late nineties in New York City, and she became a friend, introducing me to many of my literary and intellectual heroes—Edward Said, Joan Didion, John Waters, and too many more to name. (I recall having dinner with Didion and being terrified to say anything. I felt I was having an experience she had described all too vividly in “Goodbye to All That,” of wearing a dress that had seemed “smart” just a short time earlier but now felt hopelessly frumpy.)

The point, though, is this: Literature and ideas are something we experience both at a remove and up close; they are made with minds and from bodies. The work of a magazine like The Yale Review is to remind us of all of that and to try to close the spaces between us.

—MEGHAN O'ROURKE


Cover Image: Blue Grid, Sarah Slappey, 2022. Courtesy the artist, Bernheim Gallery, and Sargent’s Daughters.

Table of Contents

Nonfiction

A Reviewer’s Life

The material constraints of writing criticism today
Christine Smallwood
June 10, 2024

Alice Notley’s Disobedience

The shape-shifting voice that changed American poetry
Tausif Noor
June 10, 2024

Critical Navel-Gazing

If criticism is in crisis, it’s not the critic’s problem
Namwali Serpell
June 10, 2024

I, Too, Am John Clare

Becoming a different kind of postcolonial writer
Amit Chaudhuri
June 10, 2024

Jean Stein’s Rolodex

The legendary editor’s social genius
Benjamin Anastas
June 10, 2024

Louise Glück’s Late Style

The fabular turn in the poet’s last three books
Teju Cole
June 10, 2024

Poetically Speaking

A new book makes the case for bewilderment as a critical virtue
Brian Dillon
June 10, 2024

Rembrandt’s Reclining Female Nude

What the print reveals about a body at rest
Rachel Eisendrath
June 10, 2024

Stealing the Show

Why conservatives killed America’s federally funded theater
Charlie Tyson
June 10, 2024

Teju Cole

An Introduction to the 2024 Finzi-Contini Lecture
Meghan O’Rourke
June 10, 2024

The Critic as Friend

The challenge of reading generously
Merve Emre
June 10, 2024

Absolute Darkness

A curious disorientation
Lydia Davis
June 3, 2024

Fiction

Last Time We Spoke

Lydi Conklin
June 10, 2024

Poetry

Abundance

Rick Barot
June 10, 2024

Continuo

Geoffrey G. O'Brien
June 10, 2024

Giulietta in Trastevere

David St. John
June 10, 2024

Handfuls

Hua Xi
June 10, 2024

Homeland Security Agent

Esther Lin
June 10, 2024

The Afterlife

Jessica Laser
June 10, 2024

The Lamps

Hua Xi
June 10, 2024

The Mystery of Lovers Loan

Ange Mlinko
June 10, 2024

Traveler

Esther Lin
June 10, 2024

When the Dog Bites

Tomás Q. Morín
June 10, 2024

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Featured

A Reviewer’s Life

The material constraints of writing criticism today
Christine Smallwood

Critical Navel-Gazing

If criticism is in crisis, it’s not the critic’s problem
Namwali Serpell

The Critic as Friend

The challenge of reading generously
Merve Emre