A Considerable Aura: On Adam Shatz’s “Writers and Missionaries”

By Ann ManovJune 6, 2023

A Considerable Aura: On Adam Shatz’s “Writers and Missionaries”

Writers and Missionaries: Essays on the Radical Imagination by Adam Shatz

THE NEW COLLECTION from London Review of Books editor Adam Shatz, jointly published by the LRB and Verso, comprises mostly essays previously published in that magazine. And despite its title—Writers and Missionaries: Essays on the Radical Imagination—it is less the missionary function of writing than the value of that periodical that the book most clearly illuminates. The LRB was founded in 1979 when a lockout at The Times put The Times Literary Supplement on indefinite hiatus. Frank Kermode, who had written for The New York Review of Books since its founding in 1963, published an article in The Observer calling for something to stop the gap: and in due turn, the NYRB launched its London counterpart, with NYRB editor Karl Miller at the helm. But more essential still than Miller was his deputy editor, Mary-Kay Wilmers, who would later serve as the magazine’s editor for almost 30 years. From an immensely wealthy family, Wilmers had a childhood so cosmopolitan that for a long time, she’s said, she was more comfortable in French than in English.

Her worldliness was essential to the LRB’s direction, and so, in a very real sense, has been her wealth. The paper has never made a profit, and has been sustained by the Wilmers family trust, managed by Wilmers’s billionaire banker brother until his death in 2017. By January 2010, the LRB was £27 million in debt to the Wilmers trust, as The Times revealed that month; nevertheless, the trust appeared to have “no intention of […] seeking repayment of the loan in the near future.” As such, the LRB has always had money, and the freedom that it confers.

How has it used that freedom? Most obviously, it has no need for clickbait; where even historically respectable literary reviews have often lapsed into political alarmism and frenetic, occasionally pathetic, trend-chasing, the LRB continues to publish multithousand-word essays on real tennis, selfhood in medieval literature, and Victorian pets. It appeals to the idea that one ought to be interested and slightly conversant in, say—to take the most recent issue—the Revolutions of 1848, 16th-century Swiss social history, Epictetus, contemporary curation, and postindependence Nigeria. Scope aside, the pieces are also distinctly more opinionated than those in most book reviews: in one notorious incident of the last decade, the German English poet, critic, and translator Michael Hofmann called beloved Jewish novelist Stefan Zweig—who died by suicide in 1942 after fleeing the Holocaust—“the Pepsi of Austrian writing,” and the suicide note itself boring. Some called Hofmann’s piece offensive; no one, I think, called it boring.

And on a substantial level, the paper’s odd financial position has also conferred a certain political freedom. In the words of frequent contributor Alan Bennett—whom Wilmers has known since her Oxford days—“the LRB has maintained a consistently radical stance on politics and social affairs.” This brings us, happily, back to the title of Adam Shatz’s collection.

To be consistently radical has meant neither to be the most radical nor the most consistent. The LRB is certainly left-of-center, and has suffered the expected blowback for this—recall the uproar over Pankaj Mishra’s review of Niall Ferguson’s Civilization: The West and the Rest (2011), which led Ferguson to threaten a libel suit. But as is evident from the very first page of Shatz’s collection, it is not quite as in thrall to the suffocating pressures of conformity as its peers. This makes, sometimes, for a distinctly skeptical, irreverent attitude toward contemporary politics. Shatz’s introduction consists of a concise and quite touching defense of biographical criticism—and criticism itself—which appropriately begins with biography. In 1990, he writes, he arrived at Columbia University “with a vague and yet passionately held idea of becoming a writer.” Yet he soon learned, in his courses on French thought, about Roland Barthes’s 1967 essay “The Death of the Author,” and Michel Foucault’s own disavowal of authorship shortly thereafter. At this point, a small footnote states: “Today, of course, the idea that an author’s identity is irrelevant to an understanding of their work would be unfathomable to young people who are increasingly taught that an author’s identity is almost all that matters; but back then it exerted a considerable aura, at least in critical theory.”

What a quietly shocking remark. And yet the essay does not, then, develop into an overheated critique of “identity politics” or “woke” writing, instead dispensing quite casually with both. “Although I’m too old to call myself a Sartrean existentialist,” Shatz writes,

I continue to believe that the adventure of writing and criticism is inseparable from the lived experiences of writers. I do not mean that it is reducible to those experiences, the conviction underlying contemporary “identitarianism,” which would have us believe that writing is whipped out of collective trauma just as butter is from cream.

The point here is not to reject identity; the point, for Shatz, is to reclaim the life and history of writers, and the joy (not just suffering) that accompanies it:

It is easy, of course, to be cynical about writing, particularly if you make your living from it. The shop talk of writers might lead you to assume that they’re mostly concerned about their reputations, or that of other writers, or awards they haven’t received, or editors who held or killed their pieces, or about what other, only apparently less fortunate people do for a living. But when writers are back at their desks, most are engaged in a game of higher stakes: describing the world as they see it, and, nearly as often, as they hope to change it.

The subject of his book is not “writers,” and not “missionaries”; instead, it is, he says, “portraits of writers, novelists, filmmakers, and philosophers of various commitments.” Even this might be misleading, I think—one would not, from that description, guess that Shatz has included such extraordinary essays on, say, Alain Robbe-Grillet or Jean-Pierre Melville. The subject of the book, or Shatz’s interest, one might say, is not so much politics or even the politics of art: it is the possibility of art within the human life.

And throughout, the book is infused with life—to read it is almost an antidote to the cynicism that indeed does develop from too many book reviews obviously written as favors, or strategic plays on the part of the reviewer. Some of this can certainly be attributed to Shatz’s subjects being largely historical. The book is roughly divided into four sections: “Native Sons,” on Arab figures; “Equal in Paris,” on Black writers in Paris; “Signs Taken for Wonders,” on French figures from Claude Lévi-Strauss to Michel Houellebecq; and “Lessons of Darkness,” about World War II and more French individuals. And yet, only three of his subjects are living: Kamel Daoud, Houellebecq, and, at the time of writing, Fouad Ajami. The criticism, then, is almost entirely biographical, and at some remove (even with Houellebecq—about whom, in arguing that his 2015 novel Submission is not Islamophobic, Shatz has woven an almost mythical psychobiography).

And yet, what is his argument? Nonfiction books, in their quest for a cognizable marketing hook, often concoct a “thesis” in a somewhat limiting, formulaic way. It would be hard to say what the thesis of Shatz’s collection is, or even of one individual essay. As is common with LRB pieces, it is very hard (perhaps impossible) to detect where they shift between common opinion on the subject, an argument made by the reviewed text, and an argument made by Shatz himself; this was my experience even in cases where I had closely studied the authors in question.

But if the collection doesn’t contain a thesis, per se, it certainly displays some consistent tendencies. Politically, all the essays operate under the basic assumption that while “the Right” is hateful, wrong, and so on, “the Left” is certainly far from perfect, and it’s essentially good to poke fun at one’s idols and ideals (indeed, his criticism of giants like Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida are virtuosic). And crucially, Shatz’s book adopts the basic assumption that philosophy, theory, and literature are inextricable from the lives and times of their authors, and that any interesting critical reaction is one that combines the two. In other words, it is basically “historicist.” Yet there is a third factor that, while never explicated, is unmistakable: Shatz, while mostly eschewing the “I,” makes little attempt at impartiality.

In a charming epilogue originally published in The New Yorker, Shatz discusses his childhood obsession with French haute cuisine and his daughter’s less neurotic love of cooking. It is hard not to see, here, a metaphor for his mode of criticism: one of love. “It is impossible to study intellectual history without suffering heartbreak from time to time,” he writes in his introduction. “But, for a reader, disappointed love is still love.” He doesn’t hide when he loves his subjects (and in my view, despite the intelligence and subtlety of his critical lens, he is at his truly rapturous best with a loving one). To read Shatz is to be reminded, in the simplest and most innocent way, of why you got into all of this in the first place.


Ann Manov is a writer living in New York. She has written for The Paris Review, The New Statesman, The Believer, and The Telegraph, among other publications.

LARB Contributor

Ann Manov is a writer living in New York. She has written for The Paris Review, The New Statesman, The Believer, and The Telegraph, among other publications.


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