Art of Fiction

How to Read a Novel: The 5 Best Books of Criticism, Picked by John Freeman

John Freeman, the former editor of Granta and author of the new book How to Read a Novelist, knows his literary reviews—he has written for almost 200 publications around the world. He picks his favorite books of criticism, from Updike to Edwidge Danticat.

Hugging the Shore by John Updike.

For 20 months, between marriages, John Updike lived alone in Boston, “my foam-rubber reading chair three paces from my dining table and two paces from my bed.” Hugging the Shore, Updike’s fourth collection of assorted prose, grew out of this period, and shows what marvelous things can be done with readerly solitude. Filled with travel pieces on Venezuela, essays on going barefoot, and reviews of an astonishing array of writers, from Ngugi wa Thiong’o to Buchi Emecheta to V.S. Naipaul and John Cheever, it displays the roaming sweep of Updike’s light-house mind at its most curious and powerful and generous.

Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf.

Her Room of One’s Own has become so popular it can be mangled from its intent and referred to now as a fella’s right to his man cave. But it is impossible to export Three Guineas, Woolf’s late nonfiction novel, from its ethical concerns with the rights of women and society’s love of war. Structured like a series of letters in response to an off-stage correspondent, the book began when Woolf was asked to donate three guineas to a college fund for women. What follows from here is a marvel of the artistry of argument, of a mind at work against the narrowest ideas of its age.

Less than One by Joseph Brodsky.

Whether it was written in Russian or English, the Nobel laureate’s poetry had a stately beauty, even at its most untucked. His essays, however, first collected in Less Than One, vibrate with a luxuriant, spoken, casual charm, as if recorded from a long autumn chat, the samovar stoked and relit until the blue light of the next day has begun to appear, and all Brodsky has said about Dostoyevsky, Mandelstam, and Cavafy has become evident as the next morning’s street noise.

Out of Sheer Rage by Geoff Dyer.

Every Geoff Dyer book, in some way or other, is about not writing a Geoff Dyer book, but this is that grumbling slacker thread’s apotheosis and pony-tailed granddaddy. It is the Big Lebowski of critical books. The plot is thus: Dyer has been signed up to write a biography of his hero, Lawrence, but as he travels to Taos, Italy, and the world’s far reaches, he increasingly trips over his task’s sacred pieties. Most notably, the biographer’s self-erasure, which—as a critic—Dyer finds as necessary to his daily breath as the dude did his white Russians.

Create Dangerously by Edwidge Danticat.

The best critics excavate in order to rescue. In this moving collection of essays, Edwidge Danticat reminds how the emigrant writer must first do that to their own voice, for reasons she enumerates in pieces that alternate between meditations on Albert Camus, Haiti’s blood-soaked slave uprising, and her own family’s shattered history. Danticat’s voice is warm, yet steely, as if every word of this fiercely written book was dug out of the dirt by her own hands.