The Original Freelance Literary Journalist

edmund-wilson.jpgWhile doing research to improve my ability to write about literature (because let’s face the facts: professional or not, humility is good for the evolving writer), I stumbled across an impressive and really informative critic — some guy named Edmund Wilson. Wilson covered a broad range of books and actually thought things out to prevent himself from stating foolish declarations in his reviews. He didn’t feel the need to dismiss anyone else who wrote about books. He actually analyzed their arguments and responded in a fair and amicable manner. He had such a love of literature that he offered his editorial services for Fitzgerald’s two posthumous volumes. He wasn’t paid a dime for this, which I suppose makes him, in part, an amateur.

Wilson was so fearless in his criticism that he even lost his friendship with Nabokov because he dared to tell the truth. He wasn’t afraid to state what was on his mind and never resorted to passive-aggressive potshots directed at other critics when writing about the state of literature. Wilson read widely and in multiple languages. When reviewing a book, he would read the author’s entire oeuvre, not just the book in question. He thought of himself as a journalist more than as a critic, and, as a result of this humility and broad-mindedness, nabbed bylines in The New Republic, Vanity Fair and The New York Review of Books.

I think about folks like Wilson when contemplating why so many print critics are intimidated by bloggers, when all we’re really asking them to do is raise the bar and become aware of the books that we seem to be reading and they seem to be ignoring. But it’s worth going back to Wilson. He’s an intellectual gold mine.

[UPDATE: A note to John Freeman, since he inspired this post and doesn’t have the cojones to address me, one of the apparent podcasting hacks, in a direct and honest manner. (And really I’m happy to listen to anything Freeman has to say, no matter how vitriolic. Unlike Freeman, I not only value my critics, but learn from them.) If you’re going to take the piss out of me, at least have the decency to spell Don Swaim’s name correctly. I may be a mere blogger, but at least I know how to spell. This is also extremely disrespectful to Swaim’s great legacy. I know this, because I’ve listened to many of the man’s interviews myself to make the Segundo shows better. (Oh, and since we’re dicking around with who interviewed notable people first, not that such a childish claim over who’s been around longer should matter, I interviewed Errol Morris in 1999, among many others in the late 90s. Do I get a prize? Should I provide my own Critical Outtakes?]


  1. Wait a mintue, you are just discovering Wilson now, and you have the effrontery to fulminate against (of all people) Lev Grossman, who, whatever the necessary simplicities of the Time magazine book pages, does a decent and servicable job?

  2. His novel Memoirs of Hecate County was banned in New York State, though not by the time I read it about 35 years ago. Read his journals, like Upstate or the book of his letters to Nabokov. He was a terrific writer (though a not very nice person).

    In a story called “Here at Cubist College” I wrote in the 70s (it’s in my book Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog) a football coach has his players read Edmund Wilson before every game. I just wanted to make that suggestion because I know Mike McCarthy reads this blog.

  3. Just to keep some of that humility in tact, you should probably spell Mark Z. Danielewski’s name correctly before slamming Freeman. Not four paragraphs before you proclaim Freeman’s indecency for mispelling Don Swain, you refer to “Mark Z. Danielefski’s Only Revolutions”.
    I am the first one to admit that I often misspell words, and had absolutely no hard feelings at your error until several sentences later you got up on your soapbox and wrote “If you’re going to take the piss out of me, at least have the decency to spell Don Swaim’s name correctly. I may be a mere blogger, but at least I know how to spell.” I guess we all have our off days, no?

  4. Nice reminder of Edmund Wilson, Ed, but this fixation on Freeman is getting borderline creepy — why don’t you stick to books rather than the people who write about them, that’s why I come here.

  5. What makes you think Wilson told “the truth” about Nabokov’s translation of Eugene Onegin? I thought it was common knowledge that EW’s criticism of VN’s translation was shot through errors and in general a low-point in his literary career.

  6. You really need to get over this whole critic-bashing thing; it makes you look foolish. Especially since you’re guilty of the exact mistakes you (often falsely) accuse others of making. You don’t read material closely before criticizing it, you don’t appear to do much background research, and you often instill things with false meaning to create some kind of controversy to write about. One example from this post (aside from the obvious spelling B.S. that Ellen nailed perfectly above): Nowhere in that Vollmann interview did Freeman claim to have interviewed him *first* … he simply pointed out the date because that information was relevant to the quote. He’s not in trying to one-up you — neither is Grossman or (as far as I can tell) anyone else. He’s just doing his job. And you’re name-calling and mis-reading, which strikes me as much more “childish” than anything you’ve attributed to Freeman here.

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