Ranging from journalistic reviews to the turbocharged abstrusiosities of poststructuralism, here's a list of the critical works to which my mind returns again and again.
Walter Pater. Selected Writings of Walter Pater. (Edited by Harold Bloom.) Pater's The Renaissance is one of my secular scriptures, and this selection of the literary Pater (with a good intro by Bloom) is also worth re-reading.
D. H. Lawrence. Studies in Classic American Literature. Despite its occasional crankiness and flashes of stupidity, this deceptively thin, wildly suggestive, iconoclastic, iconogenic volume remains the single most essential book ever written about eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American literature. There is much to be found in these pages; Leslie Fiedler found his entire career here.
Edmund Wilson. Literary Essays and Reviews... (Library of America, 2 vols.) Collecting four decades of Wilson's critical books and reviews, including Axel's Castle, The Wound and the Bow and The Triple Thinkers, these two volumes are an amazing artifact of that long-ago, nearly mythical time when America actually had 'men of letters' (and women too).
Peter Brooks. Reading For The Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative. One of the best works of literary criticism of the past 40 years, this is a compelling and surprisingly readable melange of Freud and narratology, with interesting and enlightening examinations of works as diverse as Eugene Sue's Les Mysteres de Paris and Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!
Walter A. Davis. Get The Guests: Psychoanalysis, Modern American Drama and the Audience. Anyone interested in modern theater should own this book. Contains extraordinary close readings of The Iceman Cometh, Death of a Salesman, A Streetcar Named Desire, Long Day's Journey Into Night, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Edward W. Said. Culture and Imperialism. Orientalism is probably still the Said book most often mentioned and cited, but Culture and Imperialism is the man's masterpiece. Contrapuntal readings of Mansfield Park, Kim and Aida are highpoints. No matter how much you think you know, this book will teach you something.
Harold Bloom. The Anxiety of Influence. Bloom's endlessly suggestive prose-poetic meditation on influence deserves its position as an instant classic. Bloom's theory of influence is one of the rare litcrit constructs that can be usefully applied to fields outside literature.
Harold Bloom. The Western Canon. Ignore Bloom's too-predictable diatribes against academic fashion and enjoy his incomparable essays on Shakespeare, Whitman, Dickinson, Freud, Proust, Kafka, et al. The appended book lists (which Bloom subsequently regretted) are filled with great suggestions for several lifetimes' reading.
Ross Posnock. Philip Roth's Rude Truth: The Art of Immaturity. A great, essential work of American literary criticism that should be on the bookshelf of everyone who reads Roth. Indeed, it deserves a place on the shelves of anyone who reads.
George Steiner. Language and Silence. Contains some of the most ethically challenging and emotionally moving literary criticism I have ever read. "A Kind of Survivor" and "Postscript" are absolutely essential statements of post-Shoah consciousness.
William H. Gass. Fiction and the Figures of Life. All of Gass's essay collections are worth reading, worth pondering, worth arguing with. I prefer his essays to his fictions and find the best passages in his novel The Tunnel to be the most Gasseously essayistic. Every word of this first collection is meant to be thought about, every sentence written to be read aloud. This is literary criticism as avant-garde music.
Erich Auerbach. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. A stunningly intelligent, beautifully lucid, single-volume literary education, this is one of the greatest nonfiction books of the 20th century. Brilliant considerations of Homer, the New Testament, Rabelais, Flaubert, Woolf, etc., etc.
Cleanth Brooks. The Well-Wrought Urn. The paradigmatic New Critical text is still impressive after all these paradigm shifts. Brooks's criticism cuts to the capillaries of texts while employing a critical language that doesn't try to alienate the uninitiated. If only that last aspect were still paradigmatic...
Gore Vidal. United States: Essays, 1952-1992. Vidal's most barbed work of literary criticism was surely Myra Breckinridge, a killing parody of the French 'new novel' and nascent American postmodernism (l'ecole de Barthes-Barth), but the Greatest Gore is much wittier (and often funnier) in the literary essays collected here.
Rene Girard. Deceit, Desire and the Novel. Girard is a monomaniac, an Archilochean hedgehog (see Isaiah Berlin's essay "The Hedgehog and the Fox" if you don't get the reference), a monk of one idea. That's all true, and I might add that his work has a maddeningly monotonous quality reminiscent of the voices of people at pre-9/11 airports who used to approach you and ask if you've accepted Jesus as your personal savior. But none of this nullifies the value of his single idea. The "one big thing" Girard knows (mimetic desire, not God--God is something St. Girard only thinks he knows) is still a powerful critical concept, as this book repeatedly demonstrates. Once you understand mimetic desire, you'll read it everywhere. Which is exactly Rene Girard's problem...
Salman Rushdie. Imaginary Homelands. Rushdie is a very engaging critic, and this collection of pre-fatwa nonfiction will send you to Amazon looking for copies of some of the more obscure books he mentions. The essay on Terry Gilliam's film Brazil is simply brilliant.
Martin Amis. The War Against Cliche. We all know Martin Amis has an ego the size of the Eurasian landmass and that he thinks he's the son of Bellow, the reincarnation of Flaubert, and the Tolstoy of our time. If only his work lived up to his self-esteem...but that's an impossible standard. It says nothing good about the state of his fiction that his best works since Time's Arrow have been the memoir Experience and this highly readable, often perceptive collection of nonfiction. Given Amis's heady estimation of himself, it's probably necessary to remark that the 'war' of the title is the one fought by Joyce in Ulysses, subject of one of this book's better essays. Also hidden in this book is a remark about violence that just might save your life:
In the moments leading up to violence, the nonviolent enter a world drenched with unfamiliar revulsions. The violent know this. Essentially they are taking you to where they feel at home. You are leaving your place and going over to their place.
Something to keep in mind the next time you encounter a belligerent asshole.
Alberto Manguel. Into The Looking-Glass Wood. Like the Amis collection, this is a good bedside book, one to keep on the nightstand and dip into from time to time. Manguel's memoir of Borges and his consideration of Vargas Llosa are highpoints, but everything here is worth reading.
Italo Calvino. Why Read The Classics? A collection of Calvino's review essays that will send you back to the texts under discussion--the best thing criticism can do. Another good nightstand book.
Camille Paglia. Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. The kind of ambitiously synthetic work that most critics consider impossible today, Sexual Personae is perhaps most valuable for shining a spotlight on decadence, a concept Paglia absolutely owns. The chapters on Spenser, Sade, Coleridge, Balzac, Decadent Art and Emily Dickinson are especially impressive.
William H. Gass. A Temple of Texts. More flashes of brilliance from the fiery Gass. The title piece is a collection of micro-essays that will send you to Plato's Timaeus and the novellas of Katherine Anne Porter, among many other places. Reading Gass is the best way I know to tune your mind to the music of prose.
James Wood. The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief. I fundamentally disagree with James Wood and find his valorizations of Jane Austen and free indirect style unhelpfully ahistorical, but he's often a thoughtful and thought-provoking critic. His slim How Fiction Works is also (big surprise) a re-readable little book--even if it is mis-titled.
Milan Kundera. Testaments Betrayed. Kundera (whom Carlos Fuentes complimented with the title 'the other K') has written several short and quite similar nonfiction books in recent years. The Curtain is also quite good, but this is the best of them.
W. G. Sebald. On The Natural History of Destruction. Sebald lifts literary criticism to the level of art in this book that stands alongside his great fictions and shares many of their themes and techniques.
M. H. Abrams. Natural Supernaturalism. An Auerbachian embarrassment of riches, this is one of the monuments of the criticism of Romanticism. Perhaps the biggest surprise is how readable it all is--and how fresh it still seems. It's a book so good the gods rewarded its author with immortality: he turns 101 this year.
Jacques Derrida. Writing and Difference. I know, I know... Derrida is abstract, abstruse, impenetrable, obscurantist--and that's his good side. If there is, however, a single essential essay by Derrida that functions as a painless portal into the labyrinth of his thought, it's the piece that begins this collection, "Force and Signification." Read it, and you might be encouraged to read further. I'm rather surprised that anthologists and professors haven't yet caught onto this fact and persist in inflicting the impenetrable essay "Differance" upon their students as an introductory text.
Jacques Derrida. Sovereignties In Question: The Poetics of Paul Celan. A near-perfect match of critic and poet. Some of the pieces collected here might even be considered 'accessible'--a rarity in the Derridean oeuvre.
Carlos Fuentes. Myself With Others: Selected Essays. The star attraction here is Fuentes' essential essay on Don Quixote, "Cervantes, or The Critique of Reading."
Paul de Man. Blindness and Insight. The author was a Nazi collaborator and his whole life was a lie (for the extremely low lowdown, see David Lehman's Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man), but that doesn't change the fact that he was a microscopically close reader whose work encourages us to read more closely than we've ever read before.
Paul de Man. Allegories of Reading. In exemplary deconstructive readings of Rilke, Nietszche, Proust and Rousseau, de Man shows (repeatedly) how the rhetoric of a text (specifically, its figural language) can be at odds with its ostensible meaning. De Man himself is so diabolically effective a rhetorician that I can only disagree with him a few days after reading him.
J. Hillis Miller. Ariadne's Thread. Miller, the 'Yale critic' who wrote the best introduction to 'classic' deconstruction ("The Critic As Host" in Deconstruction and Criticism), here pretty much invents Deconstructive Narratology. Miller is by far the most readable deconstructionist ever to paper a pen.
Gregory Woods. A History of Gay Literature: The Male Tradition. An essential, exemplary work of critical literary history. Even extremely well-read readers will probably discover new writers in these pages.
Susan Sontag. Against Interpretation. Sontag's first and most important book (Under The Sign of Saturn is a close second). The title essay issues a challenge still worth taking up. Peter Brooks' Reading For The Plot explicitly positions itself in response to Sontag's call for an erotics of art.
Malcolm Bowie. Proust Among The Stars. Marvelous. A superlatively intelligent, well-written, highly readable, critical examination of the major themes of Proust's insanely sane Seine of a novel, with chapters on Self, Time, Art, Politics, Morality, Sex, and Death. What more could a Proustian desire?