Literary critics and regular readers often have things to say about a writer’s voice. Many think that the most-read writers are those whose voice is so clear that it can be singled out from all the other authorial voices. Hemingway, with his hard-edged nouns and verbs, is often said to have a powerful voice. Katherine Anne Porter’s authorial voice might be described as precise, incisive, and aware. Joy Williams’s voice is somewhat quirky, but — as we say — in a serious way. Peter Balakian’s voice is strong and exhilarating. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s voice carries a certain wistfulness and a sense of regret. Thomas Hardy’s novels project compassion and sorrow; yes, a sorrowful voice. Jane Austen’s voice is crisp and witty. The voice of George Eliot, née Mary Anne Evans, the author of Middlemarch, often said to be the most intelligent book ever written, is psychologically acute and hard-nosed and definitive. More… “Voice Is Vision”

About halfway through his essay “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool,” George Orwell offers a startling explanation for Leo Tolstoy’s notorious antipathy towards Shakespeare: Tolstoy is “trying to rob others of a pleasure he does not share.” Further, “Tolstoy does not know, perhaps, just what he misses in Shakespeare, but he is aware that he misses something, and he is determined that others shall be deprived of it as well.” As criticism of criticisms go, this one is nothing if not blunt. Is it possible that the basis of much of what we consider rational, disinterested critical discourse is really just a willful schadenfreude? That idea, in truth, is not too far from what masses of ordinary people have always believed: that cultural criticism and personal criticism are essentially the same and that to engage in either is merely to inflict pain under the pretense of honesty or concern.

Surely an idea as reductive as this needs no refutation. When in his essay “Charles Dickens” Orwell writes that Dickens’s whole message reduces to one “enormous platitude: If men would behave decently the world would be decent,” he isn’t trying to stick it to Dickens lovers, is he? He isn’t, in short, doing to Dickens exactly what he accused Tolstoy of doing to Shakespeare? Certainly not. Unless he is. More… “Let Me Ruin This for You”

In the fall 2017 season, the National Gallery in London mounted a show entitled “Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael around 1500.” Here were three of the greatest artists of any period, with several masterpieces on display, and each work breathtaking and all tied nimbly together. The point was to illustrate a moderate argument — namely that Michelangelo learned from Leonardo about capturing the expressive relation between the Madonna and the Infant — but more importantly, the show made clear what genius and skill can achieve.

The seven works included one marble sculpture by Michelangelo, the “Taddei Tondo” (ca. 1504-1505); one drawing by Leonardo, the “Burlington House Cartoon” (ca. 1499-1500); and five paintings in oil or tempera. These latter were depictions of the Madonna and Child, four of which included John the Baptist, and one exception, Raphael’s “Saint Catherine of Alexandria” (ca. 1507). Chief among the Madonnas were the drawing, Leonardo’s “Virgin of the Rocks” (ca. 1491-1499 and 1506-1508), and Michelangelo’s unfinished “Manchester Madonna” (ca. 1497). The three Raphaels included his “Ansidei Madonna” (1505), the “Madonna of the Pinks” (1507), and “Saint Catherine of Alexandria,” the only one without the Madonna. The spirit of the exhibit was captured by the contrast between the three great names and the almost off-handed reference to “around 1500.” This conveys the notion that the works of monumental genius are ratified, as it were, by an approximate point of time. All artists, perhaps the greatest ones most of all, work and exist in time even as they shape and suffer that perfidious and relentless medium. Art history casts the net that helps — or nearly so — bring the issues into a knowable frame. More… “Masters and Madonnas”

It is a union that suggests the essential mystery of the world. Art for me is not an end in itself, but a means of evoking that mystery.
— René Magritte

We choose destinations for random and not-so-random reasons. Brussels interested me, but I probably wouldn’t have journeyed there if not for the art of René Magritte and the chance to see where he lived. It would be shorthand to say that I “love” Magritte’s work. I do, but he occupies a deeper part of my psyche. He’s a sort of uncle who offers artistic advice by example. Magritte never dies; he just goes on smoking the pipe that is not a pipe. More… “Magritte’s 3.5-Room Apartment”

Bowling alleys are closing. They are leaving holes in cities and along highways across America, to be filled in by auto dealerships and doctors’ offices and vape shops that hope to become pot shops. Some get turned into storage facilities, others into nothing at all, left to sit and rot in the dark, the pins still set up inside them.

Whether or not you’ve noticed that bowling alleys are closing might depend on where you live and what bowling means to you. In New York City, you might see young people dressed up to bowl while sipping 17-dollar craft cocktails. In most of the rest of the country, that doesn’t happen. Throughout much of the 20th century, in smaller towns and cities, the bowling alley was a community center — a place for people to retreat after work, a little beat down. Every so often someone would land in a league and turn out to be a pretty good bowler, maybe good enough to win a little money on TV. But now those places are shuttering and going away. More… “Halfway Back to Worcester”

In Dark Ladies & Other Avatars, her debut poetry collection, Joan Roberta Ryan pays exquisite attention to seeing, eating, feeling, reflecting, and remembering — acts of attention that define what it means to live fully and well. Lit up by sparkling specificity and wit, these beautifully crafted, mostly free verse poems focus on both lovely things and disturbing things. Ryan’s subjects range from contemplations of literature and art, to heart-breaking poems about a sister’s mental illness, to appreciations of family members and their prized possessions. Most touchingly of all, the poet writes of long-married love and the art of domestic life. Ryan’s language is erudite, but her poems are never obscure. Even when she deploys unusual words, such as “akathisia” (a movement disorder) and “anosmia” (loss of the sense of smell), she does in the service of exactitude; readers get to increase their vocabularies in the bargain. Ryan incorporates subtle half-rhymes and enlivening tonal changes. She writes smart poems with heart. More… “The Dark Lady Ryan”

This year was ripe with political conversation and conflict. That’s a given. At The Smart Set, we reflect on the things that brought us joy this year. These were the texts in which we found comfort: the noise control from the constant squawkings of pundits and politicians invading our spaces, from the bad feelings and vibes that permeated and settled into our skins. Here are the salves and balms that made 2017 a bit more pleasant. Some of us stayed in the present, finding these bits and bobs that helped accentuate some of the truly cool stuff that happened this year, that amplified some of the positive energies that erupted in 2017 — collective formations, activism, points of solidarity. Others looked back, finding pleasure in artifacts once looked over and discovering their relevance and pleasure. In a post-KonMari method world, it’s necessary to think of pleasure. In her 2011 book on tidying, she suggests holding each of your artifacts and asking “Does this bring me joy?” If yes, keep and cherish. If no, discard. This question is just as relevant to maintaining your body/mind/soul as it is your abode. With all the noise and distractions, the following items were the standouts that, when sorted into the piles of texts we consumed over the year, we could say in earnestness: this brought me joy.
More… “Best of 2017”

There was a time way back when, if you were a serious comics fan, you could keep up with everything being published in a reasonable manner. Maybe not read everything per se, but you could at least be aware of all the movers and shakers and titles of note within a given year.

That era has long since passed. There are so many genres, markets, and subcategories of the comics industry these days — webcomics, art comics, kids’ comics, superheroes, manga, manwha, comic strips — that keeping track of it all is a flat-out impossible task.

So a caveat is in order: I have no blessed idea if these are in fact the best comics of 2017. Perhaps there are other comics out there that, had they been waved under my nose, I would have liked more than what’s listed below. What we have here are merely my favorite comics that came out in 2017 that I actually read. At least for the nonce. Who knows how I’ll feel about anything, comics or otherwise, come the morrow? More… “Comic Countdown”

As a writer, I’m only anything if observant. And yet I have frightening blind spots. Despite the low square footage of my Harlem apartment, too often I can’t find things in it. Clothes, shoes, the remote. Even the can opener, which has only one place of keeping, the utensils drawer, which I search through and swear doesn’t contain the utensil it inevitably must. On the other hand, things I can find easily — and know I can find easily — I waste my time finding (my wallet, keys, and phone), a vestige of my childhood compulsions.

Such as knowing the location of my security animals. As a child I had a stuffed Tigger which I brought on sleepovers and errands with my mother. Around the third grade I added a rhinoceros named Rhino.

The night I couldn’t find Rhino, we were shacked up in a transitional apartment; we were moving about an hour away from where I had great friends and awesome sports teams and a sense of home. I wasn’t inconsolable, but unconsciously desperate. Searching not my room, but some proxy box-with-bed, I felt poles of sick hope and futility pulling from each end of me, with the magnetic force of an ultimatum I hadn’t agreed to. Too young to question the imperative of Rhino’s presence, my dread that he was still missing bemused me. Childhood is rife with navigating conflicting feelings. Most of the time, that’s when you called for Mom. More… “A Year in Psychoanalysis”

When revolt has no object, it turns on itself, opposing all imagined foes in wanton destruction of imagined barriers. Most apparently since the advent of Romanticism in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, revolt has often been focused on an object considered in more personal terms — the introspective rebel pitched against disinterested systems and in search of a soul divested of the stain of acquisition, the taint of the tangible. Yet, sometimes, all the rebel finds is empty space where identity used to dwell. And this is where we find ourselves in the West today, with open, democratic societies in the grip of revolt against rationalism and its accompanying pluralism.

Pankaj Mishra, in Age of Anger, asserts that Rousseau, a scion of Enlightenment thinking and one of its chief antagonists, saw the danger of shunting the religious, the provincial, and the irrational to the margins and the shadows. Rousseau asserted, after all, that social injustice originates not with the individual but with the existence of institutions. Despite this warning, more repressive forms of nationalism took shape and grew ominously over the next two centuries, culminating in Nazi and Soviet forms of totalitarianism. More… “The Blind Owl and the Underground Man”