Meet the literary critics who are keeping the culture honest (and sometimes spicy).

Brittany Allen

July 2, 2024, 2:23pm

What is the state of cultural criticism today? This summer, The Yale Review dedicated an entire issue to unpacking this very question. After editors conceded that “we live in a moment when the closing of many news­papers and magazines means the space for reviews in traditional media is ever smaller,” top critical minds set to vexing about what we need, want, and expect from literary reviews in the late Anthropocene. And the jury would seem to be split.

Inspired by this investigation–which yielded some great essays from thinkers like Merve Emre and Namwali Serpell—I set myself the task of rounding up some of my favorite critics writing today. Whether they’re writing about books, film, or other cultural phenomena, these newer voices feed fires stoked lately by Hilton Als and Margo Jefferson. Or, they pick up where Sontag left off. In any case, these names regularly prove that criticism the medium is intellectually thriving. Even if its authors aren’t able to earn a living wage.

Byline, meet Google alert.

Tobi Haslett

A philosopher and writer working, by his own admission, somewhere “between the Scylla of the corporate university and the Charybdis of freelance hell,” Haslett is a hyper-brainy critic. His reviews are penetrating and expansive. But the wit leads you along. For a primer, I’d look to his tango, in Harper’s, with Annie Ernaux’s A Girl’s Story. His deep dive into Gary Indiana’s papers, over at n+1, is also a great read.

Becca Rothfeld

At a weird moment for the second-string paper of record, Rothfeld at least is killing it as The Washington Post non-fiction book critic. She’s as thorough as she is stylish, and is—in my opinion—extra-skilled at avoiding the bad faith interpretation. Follow her reviews, but note her non-fiction in general. I’ve been geeking out about her essay collection, All Things are Too Small: Essays in Praise of Excess all year.

Jennifer Wilson 

An academic by training, Jennifer Wilson’s a newer addition to the book beat over at The New Yorker. I was struck by her thoughtful April piece comparing two novels exploring our A.I. anxieties. In addition to contemporary fiction, she writes about cultural motifs—like the popularity of polyamory, and the original thirst trap.

Hannah Gold

A freelancer with bylines in The Village Voice, The Nation, Harper’s, and New York Review of Books, Gold is fast becoming one of my go-to critics. Her posture is breezy and engaging, but don’t let that fool you. She writes rigorous, unflinching pieces on plays and novels that engage a piece from all sides. This summary reread of Patricia Highsmith’s fiction is well worth your time.

Jessa Crispin

Crispin is the mind behind The Culture We Deserve, a website that spins out features and reviews. Her pieces feel like fireside chats more than anything. The letters are politically thoughtful, prone to righteous crankiness, and often very funny. Also, via her regular Substack missives, Crispin tends to frame her criticism with recommendations. She’s pointed me to many other good reads.

Angelica Jade Bastién

Bastién’s film criticism is always a treat. She’s refreshingly un-cagey about announcing her (correct) opinions and tastes, even as her analysis can go deep and dirty. This piece from Vulture on Poor Things is an excellent example of her fine mind at work.

Jo Livingstone 

Known for an “omnivorous approach” couched in their academic background and insatiable curiosity, Jo Livingstone is a tough, engaging, voicey critic. I was introduced to their singular style via The New Republic, and continue to stan “Reading Writers,” their critical podcast with Charlotte Shane.

Inkoo Kang

Inkoo Kang had some big shoes to fill when she stepped in to serve as The New Yorker‘s television critic. (The post was previously held by Emily Nussbaum, another favorite byline.) But Kang was quick to win this crank over. Her smart and knotty reviews are holistic. She never just recaps. She takes a show whole, considering its season’s narrative arc alongside a world’s whole aesthetic enchilada. My to-watch list may as well be her marching orders.

Ann Manov

Manov’s gaining a reputation as a formidable critic, maybe working in the Mary McCarthy or Pauline Kael schools of takedown. But I have to admit I really admire her sword. Her notorious takedowns in Bookforum, The Telegraph, and The New Statesman are fearless and precise.

Christian Lorentzen

Perhaps a known-er entity on this list, but resolutely young in spirit, Lorentzen is always fun to read. With bylines everywhere from The London Review of Books to The Financial Times, he’s incredibly prolific. But that’s so because of his acerbic wit. You get the feeling it’d be bliss to have him laugh at one of your jokes.

Lauren Michele Jackson 

Jackson is one of my favorite pop culture critics writing today. She’s incredibly funny, for one thing. But I ultimately hunt out her byline because I find her to be one of the most conscientious writers in these streets. Jackson doesn’t write reviews so much as essays that take great pains to position an art work in its larger context. This reply to Percival Everett’s latest is a great entry point.

Andrea Long Chu

Aren’t you grateful for voices that keep the culture spicy? Chu is another critic inclined to topple statues. Her pieces on Zadie Smith, Hanya Yanagihara, and more recently Rachel Cusk, have a way of engaging with a book’s negative space. Namely, the author’s politics, or lack thereof. I don’t always agree with her, but I always get something out of Chu’s provocations. Very smart, very tough, very worth considering.

Helen Shaw

I love Helen Shaw’s writing and mode of engagement just as much as I love what she chooses to review. As in-house theater critic at The New Yorker, Shaw’s lately applied her platform to a lot of off-the-beaten-path shows, shining a light on smaller and weirder stages that could use the hype.

Justin Chang

Recently recognized with a Pulitzer Prize for his film criticism, Justin Chang writes about movies at the Los Angeles Times and in NPR. His work is always incisive, thorough, and humane. This piece on The Beast sent me straight to the art house.

Happy judging!

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