Hi, I'm Becca. I am (very soon to be) the non-fiction book critic at the Washington Post. In the meantime, I'm an essayist and literary critic, a contributing editor at The Point and The Boston Review, and a PhD candidate (albeit one on hiatus) in philosophy at Harvard. I'm currently putting the finishing touches on an essay collection about maximalism, tentatively titled All Things Are Too Small, to be published by Metropolitan Books in the US and Virago in the UK. To keep up with my writing/rantings, subscribe to my substack here.
I hold a first-class MPhil in the history and philosophy of science from the University of Cambridge and a B.A., summa cum laude with high honors, from Dartmouth College, where I studied philosophy & German (and cultivated an enduring distaste for fraternities). These days I live in Cambridge, MA, with this person, whom I love.
As a writer:
I contribute essays, book reviews, and the occasional art review to publications like The New York Review of Books, The TLS, The Nation, The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Liberties, Bookforum, Art in America, The Baffler, and more. I am the winner of the first annual Robert B. Silvers Prize for Literary Criticism (see more here).
I'm also a two-time finalist for The National Book Critics Circle's book reviewing prize (2016 and 2018), and in 2017, I was a finalist for a National Magazine Award in the essays/criticism category (my nominated essay, "Ladies in Waiting," was subsequently collected in the 2017 Best American Magazine Writing anthology, available here). In 2018, my essay "Rhapsody in Blue" was included on the Notable Essays and Literary Non-Fiction list published in the 2019 Best American Essays anthology. When I write criticism, I write mostly about "world literature," especially Eastern European or German language literature with a Jewish bent, but I also review contemporary fiction sometimes. A few authors I especially love are Joseph Roth, Italo Svevo, Henry James, Henry Green, Heinrich von Kleist, Marie de France, Simone Weil, Antal Szerb, and Norman Rush. You can read my interview with the National Book Critics Circle here and my interview with Lit Hub for their Secrets of the Book Critics series here. My wonderful agent is Anna Sproul-Latimer of Neon Literary. (You can stalk her and her agency here.)
As a philosopher:
I am primarily interested in aesthetics (especially aesthetic value and its relationship to other types of value), the philosophy of love and sex, and the history of German philosophy, especially Martin Heidegger, although I have increasingly consuming secondary interests in political philosophy. In my second-year paper, "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," forthcoming in the British Journal of Aesthetics, I defend aestheticism, the view that aesthetic value is sometimes a partial grounds of moral value. (A draft is available upon request.) If I ever get around to writing it, my dissertation will be about some combination of the following: what it is to be a beautiful person, why evolutionary psychologists are wrong about human beauty, the ethics of exclusionary romantic/sexual/aesthetic preferences, and what role the state should play in ameliorating inequitable distributions of intimate "goods."
I receive many emails asking for advice about graduate school applications. I have answered some frequently asked questions on this page. As I note there, I do not consider myself an expert in how to write a successful graduate school application, and I urge all prospective grad students to consult resources online, as well as supervisors who have served on admissions committees, rather than me!
Before the pandemic, I followed Hegel in regarding nature as geistlos, but now, like any good Heideggerian, I am a big fan of hiking. Here I am in the Berkshires, which I love
In The Use of Man (1976), the second instalment of Serbo-Croatian novelist Aleksandar Tišma’s Novi Sad trilogy, a schoolboy stares at the books in his Jewish neighbour’s library on the eve of World War II ‘as if they contained the clues to salvation, as if they could rescue one from being beaten, cursed, spat upon, killed’. The books, it turns out, can do no such thing: the neighbour is murdered by the Nazis, while his daughter, Vera, is forcibly sterilized and put to work in a concentration camp brothel. Are words just so much dust in times as dire as these?
Tišma does not think so. For his characters, language is no mere luxury: it is, in its own way, as indispensable as food and shelter, for it is only language that can render a private pain public. After the war, Vera yearns to confide in someone, but her memories remain ‘stuck inside her, silent, like resin’. When she is asked to write out her biography on a communist questionnaire, she finds herself trying ‘to put the unutterable on paper’. In the end, she crosses out, ‘in thick ink, every word she had written’. She annihilates first her family, then herself: ‘Father’s name: nothing. Mother’s name, maiden name: nothing. Day, month, year of birth: nothing. She was nothing’. Now, she is ‘a prisoner of those blank sheets of paper, as she had been a prisoner in the camp’. She has been exiled from intelligibility, thereby from human community. Read more here.
One of the least interesting things a woman can do vis-à-vis sex is consent to it—yet lately, we seem to have less to say about female erotics than we do about male abuses.
On the one hand, it is not hard to understand why consent and its absence are at the forefront of mainstream conversation. A focus on rape and assault is warranted in a culture where sexual crimes are so tragically common: one in every six women in the United States is the victim of rape or attempted rape, and 81 percent of women have experienced some form of sexual harassment. In the public imagination, sexual agency is mostly reserved for male philanders and predators; female pleasure is alien at best.
Still, hollow consent, unaccompanied by inner aching, is at least as ubiquitous as sexual coercion. Sex that is merely consensual is about as rousing as food that is merely edible, as drab as a cake without icing. Even in our era of ostensible liberation, women face emotional and social pressures, both externally imposed and uneasily internalized, to appease men at the cost of their own enjoyment. Heterosexual women are forever licensing liaisons that don’t excite them—perhaps because they have despaired of discovering anything as exotic as an exciting man, or because it no longer even occurs to them to insist on their own excitement, or because capitulation to unexciting men is so exhaustingly expected of them and so universally glorified in popular depictions of romance. As the formidable Oxford philosopher Amia Srinivasan writes in her debut essay collection, The Right to Sex, her female students regularly report that they regard their erotic lives as “at once inevitable and insufficient.” In short, the young women in Srinivasan’s classes are resigned to sex that is consensual but underwhelming. Read more here.