James Peacock discusses how cultural and literary criticism can help us to unpack Brooklyn’s complex cultural history
How did you come to write Brooklyn Fictions?
There are two strands to this answer – three, if I’m being really honest. First, it evolved quite organically from my previous research on Paul Auster and Jonathan Lethem – both contemporary writers strongly associated with the borough. Having written articles and monographs on them which explored, at least in part, their representations of Brooklyn neighbourhoods, it made sense to embark on a multi-author project which dug more deeply into these representations. Looking at my research as a whole, I realise that the importance of place and the relationship between the individual and the community have been connecting themes. The second inspiration for the project was more personal. While I was studying for my Ph.D., my wife and I lived in Leith. Once a separate town, now part of Edinburgh, Leith retains a fiercely independent streak and a sense of identity in opposition to the fancier city up the road. Even though it has been undergoing gentrification for many years, and despite the fact that it has Michelin-starred restaurants and some very expensive new apartments, Leith still values a down-home, honest authenticity many of its residents feel the centre does not have. When I began to understand that the relationship between Brooklyn and Manhattan was very similar, I saw some wider potential in writing about these ideological constructions, with Brooklyn as a suitable case study. Thirdly – and here’s the confessional moment – I visited New York City for the first time in 2005 and (though it’s not very original to say this) fell in love with it. I cannot deny that a research project which might take me there a few times was an attractive prospect.Read More
Carolyn Cocca discusses how women superheroes are changing the we way think about contemporary femininity
What motivated you to write Superwomen?
As a kid, my three male neighbors and I would play “superheroes.” I was always “the girl,” whether that was Wonder Woman, or Princess Leia, or whoever, while the guys got to choose from among many characters. As I got older it still seemed that female characters were much less numerous than the male characters and were more sexualized than the male characters, and usually have weaker powers and less interesting stories. So I decided to formally apply my political science and gender studies training to this issue and found that what I felt growing up is true not only about superheroes but also about the way women are portrayed across fiction–they are portrayed much less often, with much less nuance, and with much less power. There has been some change over time, but not very much. So Superwomen investigates how and why this is the case.Read More
How the practice of criticism can offer a way to rethink our assumptions about truth, history, and human nature
What exactly do we mean by the term ‘criticism’?
The publishers asked me that and I didn’t give them an answer! It’s a fair question but I’m uneasy about definitions. They’re a bit like written constitutions: they tie you down and exclude new possibilities. Definitions demarcate a legitimate area of activity – and close off other options.
In a general way, criticism is reflection on the stories, plays and poems we read (or see, or listen to). But in detail, it varies. For some people, it’s effectively a source of consumer advice: this film is worth going to; that novel is worth buying. Others might prefer to think about what differentiates genres, or the effects of different media. Does a play tell a story in the same way as a novel? Do novels tend to works as films, say?
Then there’s fiction as a record of the way we think about the world, or our ancestors once thought about it. Criticism offers access to cultural analysis and cultural history.
My own current preoccupation is pleasure. Why is fiction so enjoyable, even when the stories it tells are unhappy ones? Why does tragedy attract audiences? Other people have other concerns: it can all be criticism.Read More
To celebrate the birthday of Fyodor Dostoevsky, I speak to film and television actress Vera Graziadei about her acclaimed one-woman performance of one of his most overlooked works
What first attracted you to Dostoevsky’s work?
Nietzsche once said that Dostoevsky was “the only person who has ever taught me anything about psychology.” I became obsessed with Dostoevsky’s work during my early twenties when I read The Idiot, a masterpiece which became for me not only a source of psychological insight, but also of philosophical thought and spirituality – my other passions, aside from theatre and literature. He is one of those rare writers whose influence extends far beyond his immediate discipline.
It was fascinating for me as a student of Empiricist philosophy, who was dissatisfied with the rational positivist approach taught to me at LSE [London School of Economics and Political Science], to dwell on the “Shakespeare of the lunatic asylum”, and have a chance to explore the darker and more irrational sides of human nature. It was a revelation to realise that Dostoevsky’s philosophical thought is at the root of Existentialism, a branch of philosophy that resonates with me very strongly. And to find out that most existentialist thinkers, including Sarte and Camus, have at some stage addressed the issues raised by Fyodor Mihailovich.Read More