A biographer’s work is never done. Just when you think you’ve written the definitive life, new material crops up and another biographer tries to claim your crown. So while Richard Ellmann set the biographical standard for James Joyce, Gordon Bowker—biographer of George Orwell and others—is giving it a go, having mined recently uncovered sources for James Joyce: A New Biography, focusing on Joyce’s inner life and shedding light on the Irishman’s time in, and attitude toward, England, as well as toward Judaism.
Gay writers energized American literature in the second half of the 20th century, argues Christopher Bram in Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America. Bram shows his own literary flair in profiling the important writers and linking literature with gay culture and politics.
“Eminent outlaw” is a title writers can earn in many ways, and William Burroughs certainly qualifies. Rub Out the Words: The Letters of William S. Burroughs, 1959–1974, shows the culturally subversive writer in a surprisingly levelheaded mode during 15 jam-packed years, beginning with the publication in Paris of Naked Lunch.
Women, too, can be outlaws, of course, and the title alone of Alice Kessler-Harris’s new biography of Lillian Hellman says it succinctly: A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman, an incisive portrait of a woman who was at the center of literary, personal, and political controversies.
Moving from biography to collections of essays and criticism, a standout is award-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson’s When I Was a Child I Read Books, in which she eloquently revisits themes of faith, human frailty, and social fragmentation, rejecting ideological straitjackets.
The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness by Kevin Young is another notable essay collection, one of several on African-American history and culture. Young offers the provocative thesis that black culture is American culture through examining the African-American tradition of imaginative lying in the forms of storytelling, “jazzing,” and improvisation.
Perhaps the most dazzling work of literary history and criticism this season is Marina Warner’s Stranger Magic: Charmed States and The Arabian Nights, a genie’s bottle full of insights into the tales’ varied meanings and enchantments.
Two 19th-century authors also have their place at the top of the season: Selected Letters of Charles Dickens comprise a virtual autobiography of a man whose epistolary output rivaled his fictional output, and who was born 200 years ago this year.
And Mark Twain’s actual autobiography, the surprise bestseller of 2010, reappears in a more user-friendly edition. Autobiography of Mark Twain: Volume 1, Reader’s Edition is a paperback that omits the scholarly apparatus but adds an introduction and a teaser: a controversial excerpt from the work’s second volume.
Finally, esteemed literary critic Carlin Romano presses against prevailing cultural winds in America the Philosophical, in opposing the view of America as the land of anti-intellectual philistines. Romano will no doubt arouse skeptics by arguing that America is the most philosophically prolific and sophisticated country in history.
PW’s Top 10: Literary Essays & Criticism
James Joyce: A New Biography
Gordon Bowker. Farra, Straus and Giroux, May 16
The Gay Writers Who Changed America
Christopher Bram. Hachette/Twelve, Feb. 2
Rub Out the Words: The Letters of William S. Burroughs, 1959–1974
William S. Burroughs, edited by Bill Morgan. Ecco, Feb.
A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman
Alice Kessler-Harris. Bloomsbury, Apr.
When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays
Marilynne Robinson. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Mar. 13.
The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness
Kevin Young. Graywolf, Feb.
Stranger Magic: Charmed States and The Arabian Nights
Marina Warner. Harvard Univ. Press, Mar.
Selected Letters of Charles Dickens
Edited by Jenny Hartley. Oxford Univ., Mar. 1
Autobiography of Mark Twain: Volume 1, Reader’s Edition
Mark Twain. Univ. of California, Mar.
America the Philosophical
Carlin Romano. Knopf, May 22.
Literary Essays & Criticism Listings
Book of My Mother by Albert Cohen, trans. by Bella Cohen (May 1, $15, ISBN 978-1935744337). By the French Academy Prize–winning author of Belle du Seigneur, a moving memorial to the author’s mother.
Arsenal Pulp Press
The Only Poetry That Matters: Reading the Kootenay School of Writing by Burnham Clint (May 1, paper, $23.95, ISBN 978-1551524344). A provocative history of the renowned language poetry group the Kootenay School of Writing, a direct descendant of the New American poetry movement.
Basic Civitas Books
The Henry Louis Gates Jr. Reader by Henry Louis Gates, edited by Abby Wolf (Apr. 10, hardcover, $29.99, ISBN 978-0465028313). Three decades’ worth of literary-historical writings from one of America’s most esteemed and popular intellectuals.
A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman by Alice Kessler-Harris (Apr. 24, hardcover, $30, ISBN 978-1596913639). A retelling of the life of one of the 20th century’s most controversial women and writers—a bitter survivor and a literary fabulist.
Central Park: An Anthology by Andrew Blauner (Apr. 4, paper, $17, ISBN 978-1608196005). Nineteen literary greats share their private passions for the world’s most famous park.
Whatever It Is, I Don’t Like It: The Best of Howard Jacobson by Howard Jacobson (Feb. 8, paper, $18, ISBN 978-1608197989). A collection of 2010 Man Booker Prize-winner Jacobson’s celebrated journalism.
(dist. by PGW)
Final Fridays by John Barth (Apr. 23, hardcover, $25, ISBN 978-1582437569). For decades, John Barth has dedicated Friday mornings to the muse of nonfiction. Sixteen years since his last volume of nonfiction, Barth delivers this third, and, with an implied question mark (he will be 82 in May), final essay collection.
Da Capo Press
Butterfly in the Typewriter: The Short, Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole and the Remarkable Story of A Confederacy of Dunces by Cory MacLauchlin (Mar. 6, hardcover, $26, ISBN 978-0306820403). The biography of John Kennedy Toole, whose life and death is one of the most fascinating and tragic American publishing stories.
Rub Out the Words: The Letters of William S. Burroughs, 1959–1974 by William S. Burroughs, edited by Bill Morgan (Feb., hardcover, $35, ISBN 978-0061711428). Three hundred of the best of Burroughs’s letters provide insight into the renowned writer’s artistic process, literary experimentation, and complex personal life
(dist. by IPG)
Albert Camus: Solitude and Solidarity by Catherine Camus (Apr. 1, hardcover, $59.95, ISBN 978-3283011888). An intimate biography of the famed thinker written by his daughter and filled with his selected texts, photographs, and previously unpublished documents.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
James Joyce: A New Biography by Gordon Bowker (May 16, hardcover, $35, ISBN 978-0374178727). A revealing new biography—the first in more than 50 years—of one of the 20th century’s towering literary figures.
Farther Away: Essays by Jonathan Franzen (Apr. 4, hardcover, $26, ISBN 978-0374153571). From bird poaching in Cyprus to the suicide of David Foster Wallace, these essays from the award-winning author of Freedom offer sharp and provocative thoughts.
When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays by Marilynne Robinson (Mar. 13, hardcover, $24; ISBN 978-0374298784). In this new collection Robinson returns to the themes that have preoccupied her work: the role of faith in modern life, the inadequacy of fact, the contradictions inherent in human nature.
As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964–1980 by Susan Sontag, edited by David Rieff (Apr. 10, hardcover, $26, ISBN 978-0374100766). The second of three volumes documents Sontag’s evolution from fledgling participant in New York’s artistic and intellectual world to dominant force in the world of ideas.
Mythologies: The Complete Edition, in a New Translation by Roland Barthes, trans. by Richard Howard and Annette Lavers (Mar. 13, $27, hardcover, ISBN 978-0374532345). The first complete English translation of the French critic’s seminal work, translated by the eminent Howard, and joined with Lavers’s original translation of Barthes’s accompanying essay, “Myth Today.” A Hill & Wang Book.
(dist. by Macmillan)
The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness by Kevin Young (Feb. 23, paper, $25, ISBN 978-1555976071). The first work of prose by poet Young illustrates the many ways that African-American culture is American culture, and argues for the centrality of art—and artfulness—to our daily lives.
Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America by Christopher Bram (Feb. 2, hardcover, $27.99, ISBN 978-0446563130). Bram chronicles the post–WWII rise of gay consciousness in American writing, beginning with major figures such as Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal and ending with Armistead Maupin, Edmund White, and others.
Harvard Univ. Press
Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights by Marina Warner (Mar., hardcover, $35, ISBN 978-0674055308) shows how the Arabian Nights reveals little-appreciated cultural exchanges between the Christian West and Islamic East, casting light on the magical underpinnings of contemporary experience.
On Fiction by Virginia Woolf (Feb. 1, paper, $12.95, ISBN 978-1843916185). The only available edition of a collection of Virginia Woolf’s essays celebrating reading and storytelling.
Terry Pratchett: The Spirit of Fantasy by Craig Cabell (May 1, hardcover, $27.95, ISBN 978-1843585077). Cabell tells the extraordinary life story of one of the world’s most beloved writers, which includes Pratchett’s courageous battle with Alzheimer’s.
America the Philosophical by Carlin Romano (May 22, hardcover, $35, ISBN 978-0679434702). Rejecting the myth of “America the Unphilosophical,” veteran book critic and professor of philosophy Romano argues that America is the most philosophical culture in the history of the world, an unprecedented marketplace for truth and debate.
McSweeney’s Books/Believer Books
Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation by Tom Bissell (Mar. 19, paper, $14, ISBN 978-1936365760). A prolific and award-winning young essayist explores the highs and lows of the creative process in a range of media, from literature to film to video games.
Mercer Univ. Press
Breathing and Walking Around: Meditations on a Life by Kathy A. Bradley (Mar. 30, paper, $20, ISBN 978-0881462708). A record of four years’ worth of observations of common people, everyday events, and the natural world made from Bradley’s home on the coastal plains of south Georgia.
Come, Tell Me How You Live: An Archaeological Memoir by Agatha Christie Mallowan (Feb. 1, paper, $13.99, ISBN 978-0062093707). Worldwide bestselling author Agatha Christie’s charming and witty account of her days on an archeological dig in Syria with her new husband, archeologist Max Mallowan.
Oxford Univ. Press
Dozens: A History of Rap’s Mama by Elijah Wald (June 1, $24.95, ISBN 978-0199895403). Wald explores the tradition of African-American street rhyming and verbal combat that ruled urban neighborhoods long before rap: the viciously funny, inventive insult game called “the dozens.”
Selected Letters of Charles Dickens by Jenny Hartley (Mar. 1, $34.95, ISBN 978-0199591411). The first selection of Dickens’s letters (from more than 14,000) provides close-up snapshots of a life lived at maximum intensity.
Dickens and the Workhouse: Oliver Twist and the London Poor by Ruth Richardson (Apr. 1, $29.95, ISBN 978-0199645886). Historian Richardson recounts how she discovered the building that was quite possibly the model for the workhouse in Dickens’s Oliver Twist.
(dist. by IPG)
Recollections of Oscar Wilde by Charles Ricketts (May 1, paper, $24.95, ISBN 978-1843680710) is a highly personal memoir of Oscar Wilde, originally published in 1932 in a printing of only 800 copies, written by an English illustrator of Wilde’s texts..
Living, Thinking, Looking: Essays by Siri Hustvedt (May 16, paper, $18, ISBN 978-1250009524). Thirty-one essays written between 2006 and 2011, in which novelist Hustvedt explores memory, emotion, imagination, and visual art, culling insights from philosophy, neuroscience, psychology, psychoanalysis, and literature.
Three Lives: A Biography of Stefan Zweig by Oliver Matuschek, trans. by Allan Blunden (May 1, hardcover, $26, ISBN 978-1906548292). Drawing on a wealth of new sources, this authorized biography sheds light on the troubled life of the world-famous Austrian author.
Rutgers Univ. Press
Emily Dickinson in Love: The Case for Otis Lord by John Evangelist Walsh (May 1, hardcover, $25, ISBN 978-0813552750). From the award-winning author of Midnight Dreary: The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe comes an argument for the identity of Emily Dickinson’s true love.
Midstream: An Unfinished Memoir by Reynolds Price (May 15, hardcover, $25, ISBN 9781439183496). This fourth and final memoir (Price died in January 2011) covers the years 1961–1965, discussing the publication of his first book, he pursuit of adult love, burying his mother, and embarking on a teaching career.
Soft Skull Press
(dist. by Consortium)
Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness, edited by Rebecca Walker, foreword by Henry Louis Gates Jr. (Feb. 14, paper, $14.95, ISBN 978-1593764173). Essays by Margo Jefferson, bell hooks and others explore the ineffable state and aesthetic of black cool, from the effortless reserve of Miles Davis in khakis to the cadence of poets such as Audre Lord.
Sterling Publishing/Carlton Books
The World of Charles Dickens: The Life, Times and Works of the Great Victorian Novelist by Martin Fido (Feb. 7, hardcover, $24.95, ISBN 978-1847329431) Fido traces the complex and fascinating life of Dickens in all its drama, tragedy, and triumph, published on the second centenary of his birth, which was Feb. 7, 1812.
Temple Univ. Press
Tiananmen Fictions Outside the Square: The Chinese Literary Diaspora and the Politics of Global Culture by Belinda Kong (May 4, paper, $26.95, ISBN 978-1439907597). Kong analyzes how the Tiananmen Square protest and massacre haunt the work of writers in the Chinese diaspora.
Univ. of Minnesota Press
I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-by Essays on American Dread, American Dreams by Mark Dery (Apr. 1, hardcover, $24.95, ISBN 978-0816677733). From Menckenesque polemics on American society to deft deconstructions of pop culture, Dery explores the darkest corners of the national psyche and the self.
Univ. of Nebraska Press
Descanso for My Father: Fragments of a Life by Harrison Candelaria Fletcher (Mar. 1, $14.95, ISBN 978-0803238398). A young man’s search for his father’s story and his exploration of the questions of Chicano identity, family, myth, memory, and loss. “Descanso” in Spanish is a kind of roadside memorial.
Univ. Press of Mississippi
Conversations with David Foster Wallace by Stephen J Burn (Apr. 1, paper, $25, ISBN 978-1617032271). Over 20 interviews and profiles of the late writer, including a previously unpublished piece from 2005.
Univ. of California Press
Autobiography of Mark Twain: Volume 1, Reader’s Edition by Mark Twain, edited by Harriet E. Smith (Mar. 5, paper, $26.95, ISBN 978-0520272255). A portable version with larger type and without explanatory notes makes this bestseller convenient for the general reader.
Univ. of Iowa Press
Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time, edited by Carl H. Klaus and Ned Stuckey-French (Mar., paper, $25, ISBN 978-1609380762). Beginning with Montaigne in 1580 and ending with Jeff Porter in 2011 (“Essay on the Radio Essay”), 50 writers share their views on what an essay is, what it isn’t, and what it might become in an age of audiovisual media.
Reading for My Life: Writings, 1958–2008 by John Leonard, intro. by E.L. Doctorow (Mar. 15, hardcover, $32.95, ISBN 978-0670023080). A landmark collection of essays on literature and culture from one of America’s most beloved and influential critics, who died in 2008.
Wayne State Univ. Press
Golem Redux: From Prague to Post-Holocaust Fiction by Elizabeth Roberts Baer (Apr. 1, paper, $27.95, ISBN 978-0814336267) Baer traces the history of the golem legend and its appropriations in German texts and film as well as in post-Holocaust Jewish-American fiction, comics, graphic novels, and television.
Yale Univ. Press
Fifth Impossibility: Essays on Exile and Language by Norman Manea (Apr. 1, $15, paper, ISBN 978-0300179958). Twice exiled from his native Romania (first to a WWII concentration camp, then in flight from the Ceausescu regime), Manea explores the language and psyche of the exiled writer.
Promiscuous: Portnoy’s Complaint and Our Doomed Pursuit of Happiness by Bernard Avishai (Apr. 1, $25, ISBN 978-0300151909). A witty exploration of Roth’s satiric masterpiece, based on the novelist’s own writings, teaching notes, and personal interviews. In addition to the novel’s sheer virtuosity, Avishai covers the Jewish community’s outrage and how Roth survived it.
Diary by Witold Gombrowicz, trans. by Lillian Vallee (Apr. 1, $20, ISBN 978-0300118063). Written from 1958 till the novelist’s 1969 death, Gombrowicz’s Diary is a vast collection of essays, short notes, polemics, and confessions on myriad subjects ranging from politics to the certainty of death.
My Dear Governess: The Letters of Edith Wharton to Anna Bahlmann by Irene Goldman-Price (May 1, $30, ISBN 978-0300169898). This recently discovered cache of 135 letters reveals the influence of the young Edith Wharton’s governess on her reading and taste, and challenges long-held assumptions about Wharton’s formative years.