c/o andrealongchu.com

c/o andrealongchu.com

The Shapiro Center for Creative Writing and Criticism inaugurated the speaker series “The Critic and Her Publics” with Pulitzer Prize-winning essayist and book critic Andrea Long Chu on Tuesday, Sept. 26. The series—hosted at 5 p.m. on Tuesdays in the McKelvey Room of the Office of Admission—aims to spotlight women critics and consider how these critics address their audiences, reading and writing practices, and artistic experience.

Since her debut essay “On Liking Women” published in the New York-based literary magazine n+1, Chu has written for The New York Times, The Boston Review, and The New Yorker and is currently a book critic for New York Magazine. 

Director of the Shapiro Writing Center and Shapiro-Silverberg University Professor of Creative Writing and Criticism Merve Emre introduced and led the discussion with Chu, which aimed to define both the role of the critic as well as that of the critic’s audience, or—as the series’ name suggests—her publics.

“I always go in with optimism,” Chu said in reference to her process. “In criticism, there is cruelty and there is viciousness. Viciousness is the attack dog that hasn’t eaten in a week and is drooling and barking and snarling, and cruelty is the person holding the leash…. There’s a restraint and a withholding, of ‘I could be hurting you, but I won’t, or I won’t as much.’ That [is the] position I hope to move towards in the takedowns that I have written.”

Chu argues that it is not simply the critic’s liking of any experience that necessitates the existence of criticism, but rather the sense that others must like it too and just as much. She credits this sociability of beauty as creating both the authority of the critic and the audience’s resulting tension with that authority.

“What you said about authority makes me think…about how the purpose of criticism is judgment, and how that judgment is never framed as something totally singular or personal,” Emre said, responding to Chu’s sentiment. “And in that case, the authority comes from the subject. It comes from the subject’s feeling of pleasure or displeasure in sensing or encountering the object, but part of criticism is always to make that subjective feeling…somehow available to others to get them to assent to it by presenting the object to them, through you…. How do you think about the authority of the critic in that sense?”

In answering Emre’s question, Chu referenced “On the Aesthetic Taste” by Immanuel Kant, who defines judgments of taste as separated into liking for the agreeable, the beautiful, and the good.

“[There are] three kinds of liking, [and] two of them have interest involved,” Chu said. “Beauty has no interest involved…. It’s not related to any sort of sensuous thing, and it’s not related to any kind of determinate concept. I can’t say there is beauty in the world and here are its qualities.” 

Emre organized an opportunity for Chu to showcase her process to the audience by distributing copies of Zoe Leonard’s poem “I want a president,” emphasizing that Chu is unfamiliar with the piece and reacting to it in the moment. The audience experienced the poem alongside the critique. 

“It’s interesting, because, of course, I recognize it,” Chu said. “It still qualifies for the kind of classic practical criticism…because I, one, don’t know who the author is, and two, am not supposed to know who the author is.”

Chu went on to dissect the practicalities of Leonard’s demands, noting that gender identity, grief, and medical conditions can inhibit one from being recommended for office and limit them from becoming the president. 

“I have a weakness for the manifesto,” Chu said. “That’s partly because I have a weakness for strongly worded and irresponsible sentences. So we say, on the level of style, I like it. If I think about the political content…. I think there’s something a little facile about it. It’s like there’s a kind of naïveness that is being performed in a way and that is cut into by the end.”

During the event’s Q&A, Chu fielded questions about the aesthetics and politics of sexuality, as well as the intentions of her pieces of criticism. She suggested that—much like flirtation—her criticism is written for those who are already predisposed to agree with her. 

“What I’m going to do when I write to you is assume that you will agree and instead spend my time creating…a kind of richly imagined space, in which you can assume the subjectivity necessary to bear the opinion that you already have,” Chu said.

Attendees, including Kim-Frank Fellow in Creative Writing at the Shapiro Center and Assistant Editor at the Wesleyan University Press Oliver Egger ’23, expressed excitement about Chu’s talk. 

“[C]ritics are such a major part of our culture and the written media we consume,” Egger wrote in an email to The Argus. “I also think the on the spot criticism is fascinating, because it really is a window into the mind of how critics make judgments and the writing process itself. Watching Andrea work through and find an opinion on that piece, ‘I want a…president’, was remarkable.”

The next “The Critic and Her Publics” event is on Tuesday, Oct. 10, and will feature Professor of Comparative Literature at Cornell University Sophie Pinkham, a writer specializing in Russian and Ukrainian culture, history, and politics.


Rose Chen can be reached at rchen@wesleyan.edu.

Charlotte Seal can be reached at cseal@wesleyan.edu.