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Criticism

Recent Issue

<i>Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life</i>. By Yiyun Li. Random House, 2017. 224p. HB, $27.

Unsettled

In 2011, the writer Yiyun Li and I were both asked to judge a fiction contest for the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. I panicked, that certain swoon-panic of the fellow author who is a fan, at her name next to mine. I was enamored of all her abilities, from mechanical to aesthetic—a certain gelid elegance, sharpness in syntax and diction, fluidity of theme in dark and light with such self-possessed strokes. And I—in my head and sometimes truly with my pen, an impulsive maximalist-stylist, always straddling rough and rougher—studied her register but found it impossible to emulate. So when we judged that contest together, I tried to calmly and coolly interact with her without a stutter. We both had agreed on the same winner almost instantly. I completely agree with you, Porochista. It’s my favorite too, so let’s go ahead with it? she wrote, words I held on to for months. Eventually I realized we had even more in common than I dared suspect: her East Asian immigrant to my West Asian immigrant, English as a second language, nuclear physicist fathers, and California as home.

<i>Toni Erdmann</i>. Directed by Maren Ade. Sony Pictures Classics, 2016. 162 minutes</p>

Professional Lives

“Career woman” is a term that enjoyed a certain vogue across the latter half of the twentieth century. An American idiom much bound to the eighties but coined in the thirties, under the guise of defining what a woman is, the phrase points emphatically to what she is not: “a woman whose career is more important to her than getting married and having children.” An archetype born of its time, the career woman is bound to that era’s signature medium: The movies helped midwife her into Western culture; on film she was made unruly (and almost always white) flesh, fed on drive and solo popcorn dinners, dressed in power colors, and sent into an unreconstructed world, where her success or failure typically depended on her willingness to obey a more natural order. There is, of course, no such thing as a career man.

<i>Double Bind: Women on Ambition</i>. Ed. by Robin Romm. Liveright, 2017. HB, 336p. $27.95.

Bound to Succeed

I once asked my mother, a well-educated, exceedingly competent woman, why she served as someone’s assistant for the majority of her professional life, yet always took a leadership role in volunteer organizations (president of the PTA and director of nearly every church committee on which she’s ever served, for example). Her response was unequivocal: “Your grandmother always told me that I would never be anything other than a secretary.” Mothers—“They fuck you up,” Philip Larkin wrote. “They may not mean to, but they do.”

VQR Online

Making Sausages: Images of Governance

March 14, 2014

During recent snowbound days, I indulged in a bout of binging the second season of House of Cards, the celebrated political drama starring Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, and a brilliantly cast supporting ensemble. Actually, I did the same binge with the [...]

A Gun and a Girl: The Case for Hard Case Crime

October 4, 2013

Any scan of the bestseller lists shows a national book culture awash in pulp. But all those hungry zombies, vengeful angels, vampire lovers, scrappy postapocalyptic teens, and fairy princess-warriors with wicked blades and toned physiques bear litt [...]

An Open Letter to Jonathan Franzen

September 20, 2013

  Jonathan Franzen at the 2011 Time 100 gala / by David Shankbone   Hi, Jonathan, I read your essay in the Guardian, and, I have to say, I’m worried about your professional legacy. I agree with some of what you had to say, disagre [...]