Hi, I'm Becca. I am the non-fiction book critic of the Washington Post, an editor at The Point, and a contributing editor at The Boston Review . I'm also in the process of putting the finishing touches on an essay collection, tentatively titled All Things Are Too Small, to be published by Henry Holt in the US and Virago in the UK. Finally, I am also a PhD candidate (on indefinite hiatus) in philosophy at Harvard, but i remain perhaps delusionally convinced that someday I will finish my dissertation. These days I live in Washington, DC, with this person, whom I love. Here you can find all of my Washington Post pieces, which will come out each week, generally speaking.
To keep up with my writing/rantings, subscribe to my substack here.
As a writer:
I have contributed essays, book reviews, and the occasional art review to publications like The TLS, The Nation, The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Liberties, Bookforum (RIP), Art in America, The Yale Review, The Baffler, and more. These days, I write mostly for the Washington Post about non-fiction, but occasionally I write essays on fiction and whatever else for other venues. 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. 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.
As a (lapsed?) 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 "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," published in The British Journal of Aesthetics, I defend aestheticism, the view that aesthetic value is sometimes a partial grounds of moral value. I describe aestheticism in more detail in a forthcoming chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Ethics and Art. You can pre-order the volume here: https://global.oup.com/academic/product/the-oxford-handbook-of-ethics-and-art-9780197539798?cc=us&lang=en&#. If I ever get around to completing 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 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).
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
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.
You can read it here!
For a newsletter called Paragraph, to which you can subscribe here.
Here's my paragraph: In college, I developed an interest in the philosopher Karl Popper, who argued that we are not justified in extrapolating from a single instance of a phenomenon to a universal law. But, he continued, “we are justified in reasoning from a counter-instance to the falsity of the corresponding universal law.” He should have written that we are not justified in reasoning from any number of instances to the truth of the corresponding universal claim. We can never observe enough white swans to know that all swans are white; there could always be more swans, some of whom are pink or green. Yet a single mauve swan is sufficient to show that not all swans are white. We can at least relish the falsity—if never the truth—of universal principles. I dreamt up a sort of corollary: if we are never afforded the pleasure of seeing our suspicions decisively defanged, we can at least
anticipate the pleasure of seeing them decisively confirmed. The symptoms, slight as they may be, are always consistent with cancer; the wind, mild as it is, could always portend a squall. One day the disaster will arrive, and then you will know it is there. I once asked a man if he loved me so many times that one morning he let the eggs char into a crusted tar and yelled, “No! Not anymore!” And at last certainty bloomed like a bright rose in my blighted heart.
“I PAINT THE PORTRAIT OF THE AGE,” the Austrian writer Joseph Roth proclaimed in a 1926 letter to his editor at the Frankfurter Zeitung. “I’m not a reporter, I’m a journalist,” he continued. “I’m not an editorial writer, I’m a poet.”
In the English-speaking world, Roth is most often canonized as a novelist. He is known primarily as the author of The Radetzky March, a 1932 saga about an Austrian dynasty rendered tragic—and ridiculous—by the collapse of the dual monarchy. During his own lifetime, however, Roth was better known as a writer of feuilletons, and even his longer works are rich with redolent miniatures. In Job, his 1930 chronicle of Galician Jewish life and perhaps his most extraordinary book, an angry woman stands “hissing as if filled with boiling water,” and clocks tolling sound like “great heavy spoons” striking “gigantic glasses.” A flabby man in The Emperor’s Tomb (1938) has a face like “dough that has failed to rise.” A woman’s tongue in Confession of a Murderer (1936) is “a red and venomous little animal.” Read more here.