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Sight-Readings: American Fictions Hardcover – June 16, 1998


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Although Elizabeth Hardwick is the author of two highly praised novels--one of them, Sleepless Nights, a nominee for the National Book Critics Circle Award--she is primarily known as a critic. Yet that word, with its contemporary whiff of consumer advocacy, doesn't quite fit the bill either. Hardwick never practices the literary equivalent of quality control, never bestows her stamp of approval on the likes of Henry James or Elizabeth Bishop. Instead she creates brilliant, unpredictable narratives, in which books and their authors are the main characters.

In Sight-Readings, her fourth collection of essays, Hardwick trains her superbly idiosyncratic eye on a procession of American writers. Rolling out the red carpet for Henry James, Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein, Margaret Fuller, or Richard Ford, she dares us not to read her pick hits. Of course, this wittiest of critics is willing to administer the occasional cudgel, decrying the nonstop fornication in John Updike's novels or the "infernal indiscretion" of Vachel Lindsay's poetry. But even her most acerbic pronouncements, like this one about incessant word-tinkerer Gertrude Stein, tell us something valuable: "When she is not tinkering, we can see her like a peasant assaulting the chicken for Sunday dinner. She would wring the neck of her words." And Hardwick's digressions are invariably gifts, essayistic windfalls. Discussing Edith Wharton's rather tony vision of Manhattan, for example, she writes: "New York, with its statistical sensationalism, is a shallow vessel for memory since it lives in a continuous present, making it difficult to recall the shape of the loss deplored, whether it be the gray tin of the newsstand or the narrow closet for the neighborhood's dry cleaning, there and gone over a vacation." As a summation of the city's self-perpetuating amnesia, you couldn't do better than that. It should be emblazoned, in tiny letters, on the back of each and every subway token. --James Marcus

From Publishers Weekly

Hardwick's latest roundup of literary essays is a gallery of startling portraits. She presents novelist Edith Wharton as a freewheeling social historian who used New York City as a frame of reference in her dissection of American society's heartlessness and predatory sexuality. Peering behind New England protofeminist Margaret Fuller's "dramatic and romantic presentation of herself," Hardwick finds an eccentric full of mannerisms, a "profoundly urban," unlikely convert to Transcendentalism, "which nearly turned her into a fool." Whether she is plumbing Joan Didion's roots in the American West, John Updike's learned obsession with sexuality, Katherine Anne Porter's flagrant fabrications about her past or John Cheever's alcoholism and "gentrification" of his concealed homosexual lusts, the eminent critic and novelist combines passionate engagement with her subjects and a conversational style informed by prodigious scholarship. In her close readings of Henry James, Philip Roth, Djuna Barnes, Vachel Lindsay, Gertrude Stein and Edgar Lee Masters, Hardwick succeeds in her abiding goal of relating literature to life, making these lapidary essays (most of which appeared in the New York Review of Books) into uncanny reconnoiterings of the American psyche.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; 1st edition (June 16, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375501274
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375501272
  • Product Dimensions: 8.7 x 5.8 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #519,463 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on April 2, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Elizabeth Hardwick is one of the founders of The New York Review of Books, and most of the essays in this collection were first published there. The collection shows Hardwick's impressive range, as she shifts with great aplomb from Edith Wharton and Henry James to contemporary writers such as Joan Didion and Richard Ford.
Hardwick's style is unique amongst contemporary critics; dull exposition is nowhere in evidence. It might be said that she writes by flashes of lightning, with each sentence reaching -- sometimes straining -- for large effects worthy of the writer she is considering.
Almost all of the eighteen essays included are rewarding, and several, including a lengthy piece on Edith Wharton, are remarkable.
This book is highly recommended for those interested in ambitious criticism unfettered by academic jargon.
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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Dianne Foster HALL OF FAME on May 29, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I finally finished this book. I wanted to read it because I heard a review of the book on National Public Radio, and thought it would give me a little insight into writers and writing. Some of the essays are better than others. I still don't know what Margaret Fuller did, though apparently many who knew her were impressed.
Ms. Hardwick divides the American writers she reviews into several categories. Mrs. Wharton is in her "Old New York" section. She reviews her books, and the reviews written at the time her books were published. I loved the "Age of Innocence" but it was all down hill from there as far as I am concerned, though Ms. Hardwick defends a few of her other pieces.
Ms. Hardwick coves, Cheever, Didion and Roth in "Fictions of America." Since I was never jaded enough to fully appreciate these writers, I was happy to read Ms. Hardwick's views and discover the reasons why I found them off-putting. It's not that they couldn't write, but that I just didn't like what they wrote. On the other hand, I was jaded enough to read a couple of books by John Updike (not Rabbit) and Richard Ford (Independece Day) and though I find them both overgrown adolescents thought her coverage of them was fair. They write well, I'm just tired of men in mid-life crises.
She ends with Mary McCarthy and Nadine Gordimer. Gosh the 20th Century was sure awful.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Charlus on July 23, 2004
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
While Ms. Hardwick has a sharp mind and an intriguing way of encircling her authors, I found this a very frustrating collection to finish. Intermittently she would illuminate an author I knew little about in a way that made me want to know more. Those authors I was familiar with, however, were often analyzed in rather unoriginal ways using the most familiar facts or quotes. The most irritating thing about her essays was her style of writing.

Her syntax is often idiosyncratic and her metaphors either missed or pushed to absurd limits ("In this field study, each new digger will need to explore the previously looted pharaonic tombs in search of an overlooked jewel in the stone eyes prepared for eternity" (p.205) referring to a biography by Jeffrey Meyer. Whew!). She will compile lists of nouns without clarifying the point of such a list or what the nouns are suppose to refer to. Some sentences just remain mystifyingly opaque ("The zest and jest are embraced, perhaps too lovingly. The manner itself is the intention, and the ear is bookish and rather overwhelming"). (p.91) All this gets rather exhausting for pages at a time.

Nonetheless, her appreciation of her chosen writers is always evident, even when they come under her benignly critical eye and her personal knowledge of some of these people is enlightening. I only wish she chose not to sacrifice clarity for style.
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