'Thanks': On Negative Criticism

by Orit Gat

The commonplace complaint is that no-one reads reviews anymore, and that reviews sections are consequently a nonissue. But we should read reviews, and we should read them carefully and think about the huge role they play in a magazine. The reviews section in any given publication is oftentimes the largest section and covers a substantial number of artists. It is thus a place where we need to scrutinise representation, but also a place in which a magazine asserts its stakes: if the reviews section is an entryway into the features well, then both the artists covered and the writers assigned may be involved with it more closely in the future. It’s where writers learn to write and where artists often get their first significant bibliographical notation. Lastly, the reviews section has a significant financial role in any given magazine. The fact that advertising and revenue models are changing because of the internet only makes this more crucial. [read full essay]

Nature is Dirty

Tom McCarthy, Satin Island

reviewed by Dan Barrow

Culture as garbage, garbage as culture – such is one formulation of the modernist conundrum. Beckett's much-abused comment that '[e]very word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness' – given, lest we forget, not in some carefully preserved high-cultural despatch, but in a 1969 interview for Vogue – rather than implying a quasi-Buddhist contempt for the merely existent acknowledges that words are a substance that requires order, patterning, against the impossible purity of... [read more]

En-chant the Land

Robert Macfarlane, Landmarks

reviewed by Jennifer Upton

‘Before you become a writer,’ says Robert Macfarlane in Landmarks, ‘you must first become a reader.’ Macfarlane is an attentive, empathetic reader of texts and landscapes. These dual literacies inform each other in Landmarks, creating a book that invites its own readers to be enriched by its language and turn their gaze outwards, to the grammar of the natural world. The book is a record of Macfarlane’s ‘pupillage, if the word may be allowed to carry its senses both of “tuition”... [read more]

A Second Skin

Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, Leanne Shapton et al., Women in Clothes: Why We Wear What We Wear

reviewed by Amber Jane Butchart

‘The commodity is not one kind of thing rather than another, but one phase in the life of some things,’ wrote the cultural anthropologist Arjun Appadurai in his book, The Social Life of Things (1988). It is the life of things – specifically clothing – and our relationships with those things that are the driving force behind Women in Clothes. Refreshingly unconcerned with the commodity phase, unlike much fashion reportage, this is a book that documents the power of clothing to share in... [read more]

The Feeling of Things Past

Yoel Hoffmann, trans. Peter Cole, Moods

reviewed by Dustin Illingworth

In Proustian literature, memory is marshalled as a form of aesthetic seduction. The product of that most fundamental of human propensities – to recall, to remember – is imbued with an authenticity that belies its construction as the reader, beguiled, begins to conceive of remembrance itself as a kind of latent narrative model: behold, the novel of the mind. The history of the memory novel – as a site of revelation, of credible experience, of transformative pain – is as rich as anything... [read more]

On Giving a Shit

Peter Smith, Between Two Stools: Scatology and its Representations in English Literature, Chaucer to Swift

reviewed by Christina Black

‘Celia, Celia, Celia, Shits!’ So goes Jonathan Swift in one of the most infamous lines in all of English poetry – the last word often blotted out with a demure dash to preserve the reader’s sensibilities. Happily, however, there exists another type of reader who remains just as interested in ‘shiterature’ as Swift and his literary predecessors were. Peter Smith is this reader, and his book, Between Two Stools: Scatology and its Representations in English Literature, Chaucer to... [read more]

House-training the Id

Marina Warner, Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale

reviewed by Helen Tyson

Once upon a time, my mother took a school friend and me to a theatre production of Grimm’s fairy tales. I don’t remember much about the performance, but seared into my mind is one vivid scene: one of the ugly sisters, cloaked, hunched, sinister, and very ugly, reaches across and plucks out the other sister’s eye, a trail of bloody tendons spewing out like a rainbow in its wake. My seven-year-old self, more familiar with the 1950 Walt Disney Cinderella, with its friendly cooing birds,... [read more]

'It’s a funny country...'

Charles Ferrall & Dougal McNeill, Writing the 1926 General Strike: Literature, Culture, Politics

reviewed by David Renton

The General Strike of 1926 has entered collective memory as a decisive moment in British industrial history. It was the the turning point when the two great strike waves which sit on either side of the first world war came to an end. After periods of ruling-class concession and then hostility it was the occasion when it became clear that there was not going to be a British counterpart to the Russian Revolution of 1917. All this history is often summarised in the one fact that everyone knows... [read more]

A Special Kind of Wealth

Zoe Williams, Get it Together: Why We Deserve Better Politics

reviewed by Elliot Murphy

With the recent election of a new Tory majority government, it is timely to consider Guardian columnist Zoe Williams’s urgent assessment of the central problems of British politics. Get it Together: Why We Deserve Better Politics reverses the common Tory mantra of ‘individual responsibility’ by insisting that if someone is in full employment and suffers from a lack of food and warmth, then the fault lies not with them, but with the structure of their utilities provider and food supply.... [read more]

The Dancing Narcissus

Karl Ove Knausgaard, Dancing in the Dark: My Struggle Vol. 4

reviewed by Hilary Ilkay

Meeting Karl Ove Knausgaard at the Edinburgh Book Festival last August was both a thrilling and terrifying experience. After binge-reading the first three instalments of My Struggle, I felt intimately connected to the narrating Knausgaard, who leaves no introspective stone unturned, but I had no idea what I would say when confronted with the grizzled, bearded Norwegian himself. Knausgaard lays bare the figures in his life, both transient and lasting, with as much candour as he does himself, and... [read more]

So Just How Fucked Are We?

Danny Dorling, Inequality and the 1%

reviewed by Luke Davies

According to Professor Danny Dorling, Halford Mackinder Professor of Geography at the University of Oxford: pretty fucked. Inequality and the 1% is more of a statistical overview than a polemic. Published towards the end of last year, now seems like a good time to remind ourselves of its existence. Because it’s devastating. And because it’s full of sober, irrefutable data analysis – it is a product of research, with 50 pages of footnotes. In other words, not the kind of public school... [read more]