A Critic Moves Between Literature and Film

Every art form has its own canons, histories and traditions. Mastering one of them, or even learning enough to fake such mastery, requires time and work. That is one reason critics tend to specialize: the task of educating yourself, of staying current and filling in gaps, can be a full-time undertaking. But the various arts also make distinct demands on our time, our attention and our senses. As much as we are analyzing different forms and genres, we are also contemplating different modes of experience.

At least before Covid-19, a movie was something I encountered at a specific place and time. I would take the subway to a screening room, greet (or try to avoid greeting) various peers, and settle into an aisle seat. Most of the time, I’d see a film just once before reviewing it, taking notes to keep my focus and organize my thoughts, cocooned in a familiar ritual space, solitary and surrounded by other people.

Things have changed a bit in recent months. Watching a movie at home via streaming, I’m not limited to a single viewing, though I have to fight off the inevitable distractions of domestic life. Which makes the experience more like reading, in a way. But the fact that reading and watching now occur in the same physical space also emphasizes how different they are. A book is a physical object, portable and inscribed with signs that require decoding. A movie is a thing that happens, a swirl of images and sounds, faces and bodies, words and feelings.

I wouldn’t want to have to choose between them. But last year I found myself missing some of the rituals of book reviewing: the annotations penciled in the margins; the long, silent hours spent in the exclusive company of a single imagination; the way one book leads you to another, making you privy to conversations across time and geography. So I asked Pamela Paul, editor of the Book Review, and Gilbert Cruz, who leads the Culture desk, if I could split my time between literature and film, looking at old books as well as new movies.

Essays from the series, “The Americans,” will appear in the Book Review through the rest of the year. The impulse to dig around in the archives of American literature was partly to find voices that might speak to the present by offering different angles on our current preoccupations. I think Stegner, a self-identified Westerner whose career spanned the decades from the Great Depression to the end of the Cold War, is valuable because he doesn’t fit easily into 21st-century ideological categories.

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