We’re living in a golden age of cultural criticism. Sure, ye olde online content farms yield a lot of drek, but they’ve also borne more and better writing, from Matt Zoller Seitz on Mad Men to Doreen St. Felix’s deconstruction of how patois is heard and misheard. Not all of this stellar #kultural #kontent has been collected in books—yet—but there’s a lot, new and old, to keep you busy in the meantime.
Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays
by Eula Biss
The titular essay of Notes from No Man’s Land might be the single best piece of criticism written about the “Little House on the Prairie.” Winner of the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism, this book—deeply concerned with issues of race and privilege—rightly launched Biss’s career.
by John Jeremiah Sullivan
Pulphead collects the best of Sullivan’s magazine writing: “Mister Lytle,” about the novelist Andrew Nelson Lytle; “Unknown Bards,” an early foray into blues criticism—an area that has become his forte; and “Michael,” one of the clearest-eyed pieces of writing on Michael Jackson’s complicated legacy.
Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art,
Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth
by A.O. Scott
I first taught myself how to write a piece of criticism by mimicking the structure of Scott’s 2007 review of 300. (This is just to say I would follow Scott into Thermopylae.) Better Living is rambling and generous.
Changing My Mind
by Zadie Smith
How lucky are we that we get Smith’s fiction and her criticism? Smith’s nonfiction—much of it from The New York Review of Books or The Guardian—skips from the future of literary fiction in “Two Directions for the Novel” to a recent history of British television comedy in “Dead Man Laughing.”
The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic
by Jessica Hopper
The title says it all, doesn’t it? Hopper frames this collection with stories of her own life, and it’s a fascinating look into how a critic is made. Hopper is best on the music of her youth: Bikini Kill, the early nineties, Minneapolis.
For Keeps: 30 Years at the Movies
by Pauline Kael
Kael was, along with Roger Ebert, one of America’s best known and most respected critics. She wrote for The New Yorker between 1968 and 1991, and about a fifth of her work is found here, including “Trash, Art, and the Movies.”
Bad Feminist: Essays
by Roxane Gay
This New York Times-bestselling collection of essays covers gender, race, language, and everything else. Equal parts funny and heartwrenching, Gay cares passionately about the stories we tell as a society.
by Hilton Als
In intoxicating prose, Als mixes memoir with fiction and criticism; the boundaries between the three genres are not always clear here. His take on white girlhood is spot on if not precisely literal: some of his best pieces cast Truman Capote and Vogue’s André Leon Talley in the role.