Christine Smallwood on Going Back to the Text


The Critic and Her Publics is a live interview series that asks the best and most prominent critics working today to perform criticism on the spot, on an object they’ve never seen before. It’s a glimpse into brilliant minds at work, performing their thinking, taking risks, and making spontaneous judgments, which are sometimes right and sometimes wrong.

Merve Emre: The first living critic that I remember looking up to was Christine Smallwood. When I was in graduate school, I used to read her column in Harper’s and her essays in The New Yorker and in Bookforum, and I was so impressed by her ability to fire on all cylinders, to write with outrageous elegance and simplicity, to read sentences attentively, and to scale up from questions of style to the most urgent and dramatic questions of genre and form. So it was a thrill to see her turn from writing criticism to writing fiction.

Christine’s debut novel, The Life of the Mind, which she describes as a freelancer’s novel, is about a young woman named Dorothy, an adjunct professor of English who, at the novel’s beginning, is having a miscarriage. Dorothy has reached the end of several plots in her life: she is no longer a dutiful graduate student aspiring to become a successful academic, she is no longer pregnant. What should she want? She doesn’t know.
Christine’s most recent book, La Captive, is in part about Chantal Ackerman’s adaptation of Proust’s novel, and in part is is about Christine finding the time to write a book about La Captive while caring for her two young children, a captive in her own home. Christine’s relentless self-reflection and style of interrogation will become apparent in this conversation.
Appropriately for the last episode of the season, our discussion will unfold as a meta-discussion of this format—of what it makes possible and what it leaves out. Christine surprised me by taking the show as her object and I’m thrilled to have her here to challenge my ideas about what criticism is and how we do it.

For a full transcript, head over to the New York Review of Books.

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Christine Smallwood is the author of La Captive (Fireflies Press, 2024) and the novel The Life of the Mind (Hogarth, 2021), which Time magazine named one of the top ten fiction books of the year. Her essays, reviews, and profiles have been published in Harper’s, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, Bookforum, and The New York Times Magazine, where she is a contributing writer. She holds a PhD in English from Columbia University and is a core faculty member of the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, where she teaches courses on the nineteenth-century novel and other topics.

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