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
The most offensive thing about Pandemic!, Slavoj Žižek’s hastily composed monograph, is that it is not especially offensive. Despite its cover (outfitted in shrieking magenta, with five of the title letters enlarged to spell out “panic”), its outrageous chapter names (“The Virus of Ideology”, etc) and its sensationalist subtitle (“COVID-19 shakes the world”), the Slovenian provocateur’s latest publication is uncharacteristically staid. Read more here.
To read the Jewish-Romanian poet and Holocaust survivor Paul Celan is also to read commentators, commentators on commentators, and so on and on, until finally the clatter of exposition overwhelms the oracular verse. Pierre Joris, the latest translator intrepid enough to tackle the foremost German-language poet of the postwar period, estimates that there are “a hundred plus books” about Celan and “several thousand—six thousand? seven thousand? it is nearly impossible to keep track worldwide—articles and essays that have appeared and keep appearing at a dizzying rate.” Celan is the subject of monographs or papers by thinkers as prominent as Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Charles Taylor, and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe. There are now more than 15 English translations of his most celebrated poem, “Deathfuge.” The academic cottage industry devoted to his work is predictably formidable. Read more here.
“The moment that an artist takes notice of what other people want, and tries to supply the demand, he ceases to be an artist, and becomes a dull or an amusing craftsman”, wrote Oscar Wilde in “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” (1891). In No-Signal Area, a newly translated novel of 2014 by the Croatian author Robert Perišić, there are many dull craftsmen – and a number of unlikely artists.
Perišić’s mordant romp takes place in the town of N, a forlorn outpost on the margins of an unnamed nation in what was once Yugoslavia. It is no accident that the author declines to specify the town’s exact location. Forgotten by policymakers and overlooked by tourists, N might stand for “nowhere”. Its inhabitants are traumatized by memories of the recent ethno-nationalist conflict, and most of them have been out of work since the local turbine factory shut down. Sobotka, once the factory’s engineer, has been estranged from his wife and daughters since they fled to escape the war. Even mobile phone coverage in N is unreliable. Forsaken by the forces of neoliberalism and forgotten by the more fortunate denizens of the new world order, it has become a dreaded no-signal area. Read more here.
It is customary an essay about Kafka by emphasizing how impossible it is to write about Kafka, then apologizing for making a doomed attempt. This gimmick has a distinguished lineage. “How, after all, does one dare, how can one presume?” Cynthia Ozick asks in the New Republic before she presumes for several ravishing pages. In the Paris Review, Joshua Cohen insists that “being asked to write about Kafka is like being asked to describe the Great Wall of China by someone who’s standing just next to it. The only honest thing to do is point.” But far from pointing, he gestures for thousands of words. Read more here.
The novels of the English experimentalist Ann Quin are not like most: although she was loosely affiliated with a movement of pioneering British writers in the 1960s, among them B.S. Johnson and J.G. Ballard, she remains singular in her aversion to the usual strictures of structure. Her books careen wildly among verb tenses and perspectives. They lack the customary form—the start, the climax, and the denouement—that holds most stories together.
Yet even when Quin is shredding the conventions of traditional narrative, she fills her work with trios. Instead of plot arcs, there are love triangles. In Berg (1964), Quin’s outlandish retelling of Hamlet and her first published book, a man sets out to seduce his father’s girlfriend (and afterward to kill his father, though he does not succeed). In Passages (1969), Quin’s third novel, a man on a tortuous trip with a woman fantasizes obsessively about sadomasochistic threesomes. And in Tripticks (1972), the last novel Quin completed before committing suicide in 1973, a man is chased across America by his ex-wife and her new beau. The book contains illustrations by Carol Annand, and many of its poppy cartoon panels are triptychs. Read more here.
One afternoon in Brighton, England, wealthy art collector Adam Verver spends a small fortune on a set of precious Damascene tiles. Then, for what turns out to be a somewhat steeper price, he procures a precious wife. Charlotte Stant, soon to be Charlotte Verver, is an American expatriate of extraordinary taste and talent: her only failing is her limited means, which force her to shuttle back and forth between her rich friends’ country estates. At the beginning of The Golden Bowl (1904), Henry James’s last great novel, Charlotte is left to compensate for her material penury with her social graces. But when we encounter her after her propitious union with Adam, she is at last polished and perfected: she descends a “monumental” staircase decked out in “unsurpassed diamonds,” “with a consciousness materially, with a confidence quite splendidly, enriched.” With the benefit of Adam’s backing, Charlotte can finally gleam as brightly as a diamond or a Damascene tile, for she, too, is a “rare and special product.” Read more here.
I wrote for the Oxford Public Philosophy Journal (an exciting new journal!) about the merits of "public" philosophy
What is “public philosophy”? I am not convinced that there is any such thing. I recognize the differences between good philosophy and bad philosophy, historical philosophy and contemporary philosophy, and philosophy of math and philosophy of mind. But I am skeptical that there is any meaningful, much less necessary, difference in kind between philosophy that happens to be printed in a newspaper and philosophy that finds itself cloistered in an academic journal. Both strike me as “just philosophy.” Read more here.
A specter is haunting academia — the specter of cancellation, ghostly in part because no one can agree about what it amounts to, much less whether it even exists.
There is further disagreement over what “cancellation” would involve if it in fact existed. Some understand it as a matter of cultural boycotts targeting prominent figures with questionable views, while others are more concerned about our tendency to treat social media platforms as de facto courtrooms. Read more here.
and you can read it here: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/20/books/review/three-rings-daniel-mendelsohn-stranger-faces-namwali-serpell.html
A woman lies dead, decapitated by a passing taxi on a Paris street. Or maybe she is just dreaming. For a moment, she is window-shopping in Paris, but then she is in her lover’s bedroom in New York and her grandmother’s apartment in prewar Budapest. Dead and alive, American and European, insightful and sightless, the woman is aptly named Sophie Blind: Sophia is the Greek word for wisdom, but the surname Sophie took from her tyrannical husband is a testament to her bleary vision.
“She opens her eyes with enormous effort,” begins Divorcing, the flustered 1969 novel that the Hungarian-Jewish philosopher Susan Taubes published scarcely a week before committing suicide. The book, reissued by New York Review Classics this fall, is full of failures of sight. Even when Sophie wrenches her eyes open, “she doesn’t see a thing.” You can read more here.