Hi, I'm Becca. I am soon to be at work on an essay collection, tentatively titled All Things Are Too Small, to be published by Metropolitan Books. I'm an essayist and literary critic, a contributing editor at The Point, and a PhD candidate (soon to be on hiatus) in philosophy at Harvard. To keep up with my writing/rantings, subscribe to my substack here.
I am interested in beauty, obsession, imbalance, the novel, and the history of philosophy, among other things. I write essays, book reviews, and the occasional art review for publications like The New York Review of Books, The TLS, The Nation, The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Bookforum, Art in America, The Baffler, and more. I'm 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. 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. 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. My agent is Anna Sproul-Latimer of Neon Literary. (You can stalk her and her agency here.)
At Harvard, I am interested in aesthetics (especially aesthetic value and its relationship to other types of value), the philosophy of love and sex, and Martin Heidegger. In my second-year paper, "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," I argue that aesthetic value is sometimes a partial grounds of moral value. (A draft is available upon request.) My dissertation will be about the ethics of exclusionary romantic/sexual/aesthetic preferences and what role the state should play in ameliorating inequitable distributions of intimate goods. 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, where I studied philosophy & German (and cultivated an enduring distaste for fraternities). These days I live in Somerville MA.
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--I do not know why I was admitted to Harvard!--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
One of contemporary analytic philosophy’s most persistent pathologies is its mania for “domestication”—that is, for the translation of Continental effusions into a cooler, cleaner vocabulary. Sometimes, domestication is merely a matter of untangling the terminological knots that make thinkers like Heidegger and Hegel so daunting to Anglophone audiences. Often, however, the practice involves the taming of ideas themselves, as if they were so many unruly animals. The domesticator offers up such morsels as a secularized Kierkegaard, or a Pascal who is more of a protoexistentialist than a Jansenist. What is lost in verve, domesticators claim, is gained in newfound plausibility, at least when the relevant arbiters are the atheistic liberals who preside over present-day academia. Read more here.
We know a lesser life does not seem lesser to the person who leads one,” wrote the novelist and critic Diane Johnson in 1972. “His life is very real to him; he is not a minor figure in it.” This wise and witty insight appears in The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives, Johnson’s monograph on Mary Ellen Peacock Meredith. The adulterous wife of the celebrated Victorian writer George Meredith, the spirited Mary Ellen is one of many “lesser” figures, all too frequently female, who have been more or less excised from the historical record. Johnson’s masterful biography paints an evocative portrait of a woman with grand intellectual ambitions—and thereby dignifies a figure first vilified and then forgotten by most chroniclers of the period. Read more here.
Before the pandemic, I spent most of graduate school contriving to avoid attending or delivering talks. I had no desire to hear the scholars I admired speaking. After all, why should I? It’s not that academics are necessarily clumsy orators — though I myself happen to be a particularly wretched one — it’s just that facility for writing and facility for talking have virtually nothing to do with each other. The author of an astute paper or an elegant monograph is, if anything, apt to prove worse at talking than an ordinary, uninhibited person, given that she is almost certainly in the habit of laboring over obstinate sentences for weeks. Read more here.
OTHER PEOPLE’S LOVES ARE LIKE other people’s dreams—boring and incomprehensible to observers.
Or so I thought when I first navigated to Rachel’s profile, knowing that she was the person for whom Adam had left me. I clicked through beaches she’d visited and lumpy cakes she’d baked, passages she’d underlined and toddlers she’d tickled. Her bookshelf jutted into the background of a few photos, and when I zoomed in and squinted, I could make out a row of mint-colored Penguin Classics. An earlier, non-Adam boyfriend still liked some of her photos, which I knew because I clicked not only through her pictures but also through the profiles of the all people who had liked them, through their photos, through the profiles of the people who had liked those, and so on, until at last I found myself hunched over my phone at five in the morning, staring at pictures of Rachel’s ex-boyfriend’s third-grade teacher’s tomato garden. Read more here.
For philosophers of a certain school, the task of so-called “popular philosophy” is merely to translate the latest academic findings into simpler language (an idea recently supported in a blog by Timothy Williamson). On some specifications of this model, scholarship and its public cousin differ significantly in neither kind nor tone. The latter should jettison arcane technical terminology, but it should nonetheless retain the brisk, no-nonsense sensibility of that tweedy staple, the academic journal article, written not to enthrall but to inform. Read more here.
By all accounts, Maurice Schérer led an oppressively virtuous life. He never cheated on his wife. He was sober, refusing both drugs and alcohol, and he attended Mass each Sunday. Though he could have afforded a car, he never bought one, and he considered even occasional taxi trips an undue extravagance. In his old age, when he was suffering from painful scoliosis, he continued taking two buses to work in the Montparnasse neighborhood of Paris each morning, then the same two buses back home each night. He cherished quiet enjoyments: classical music, visits to museums, nights at home with his family. He was born in 1920 and died in 2010, but he never owned a telephone.
What does this self-effacing ascetic have to do with Éric Rohmer, the elusive yet glamorous filmmaker who has been called “the father of French New Wave”? Perhaps it is only incidental that they were, in fact, the same person, for the two of them led remarkably discrete lives. Schérer was a teacher of high school Greek and Latin when he started publishing film criticism, first in magazines run by others, then in a short-lived journal he founded himself, and finally as the editor of the legendary Cahiers du Cinéma. Soon after he began writing, he adopted the pseudonym “Éric Rohmer,” a nod to mystery writer Sax Rohmer and director Erich von Stroheim, to prevent his touchy mother from discovering his true vocation. Yet even when the old woman died, oblivious, in 1970, he remained fanatical about keeping his private life sealed apart from his art. His wife and two sons sometimes accompanied him on filming trips, but they were never permitted on set; they did not meet his colleagues until he was lying on his deathbed. Read more here.
I have always struggled to articulate why Joan Didion, patron saint of female essayists, leaves me cold. No one could deny that she is a crisp stylist, or that she is drily and drolly hilarious, or that her prose is somehow remote and vivid at once. As Hilton Als puts it in his deft introduction to her new collection of essays, her non-fiction has “the metaphorical power of great fiction”. She writes, for instance, that inside a Las Vegas hotel it is “perpetually cold and carpeted and no perceptible time of day or night”; that sitters in Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs have “skin like marble, faces like masques”. Each sentence paints a concise yet telling portrait. Read more here.
The German novelist Jenny Erpenbeck is used to living in pieces. Born in East Berlin in 1967, she came of age in a bifurcated city. But even after German reunification, in 1990, the country she inhabited struck her as clumsily cobbled together. When she meditated on reunification years later, she eschewed talk of repair and opted instead for the counter-intuitive imagery of breakage. ‘What was I doing the night the wall fell?’ she asks in her new book, Not a Novel: A Memoir in Pieces. ‘I slept. I literally slept through that moment of world history, and while I was asleep, the pot wasn’t just being stirred, it was being knocked over and smashed to bits’. In many cases, the smashing was physical: the wall itself was torn down, while Erpenbeck’s erstwhile elementary school was reduced to rubble. But a form of life was also destroyed, and much of Not a Novel treats its author’s conviction that even now she remains riven, an occupant of both a place that no longer exists and its strange, shiny successor. Read more here.
Lauren Oyler is viral and vicious. A critic with a reputation for pulling no punches, she is known for delivering refreshingly sane judgments of overhyped, commercially successful books. She is not alone in her ruthlessness — there are a number of critics who are at least equally ferocious about deflating promotional balloons, among them Merve Emre and Christian Lorentzen — but she is the hater who makes the greatest waves on the internet. She specialises in skewering vapid writing that takes its cues from social media, and her 2020 take-down of Jia Tolentino’s popular essay collection was shared so many times that the London Review of Books website crashed in the aftermath. When asked in a recent profile about her enviable fearlessness, she replied: ‘We’re all adults here.’ Read more here.
THE CLOSEST THING I HAVE TO AN INVIOLABLE PRINCIPLE is that it is a sacrilege to read a good book on a screen. Setting aside paper’s many sentimental attractions (gluey smell, physical heft, ample space for scribbling), to which I will admit I am susceptible, to read on what is so hideously called an “e-reader” is to concede that literature is continuous with the internet, that non-place where people go to look up one word, only to resurface lifetimes later, dazed and dead-eyed, twenty minutes into a video of someone popping pimples with a special implement. The internet scoops out the mind and mashes it into wet pulp, which is to say that it is the opposite of a novel, at least when the novel is working.
But the task of literature is to reflect (if never just replicate) even unliterary or anti-literary realities, on pain of irrelevance. Contemporary fiction full of telegrams and analog phones would smack of contrivance and cutesy nostalgia, like TV shows in which the characters show up at each other’s houses to stage confrontations in person, instead of just texting angry emojis as actual people increasingly do. The internet is real life now. The question is not whether to fictionalize it but how to incorporate its distractions and derangements into a novel that is not hellish to read. Read more here.