Thomas Mallon did not, in fact, set out to become a historical novelist, much less a writer of against-the-grain cultural essays and literary criticism, but he had not counted on the damage that heavy theory would inflict on such vital organs as the head, heart, and ears of academia. As a worker in the vineyard of modern British literature, Mallon, when an assistant professor at Vassar, found himself faced with the daunting task of reviewing a book on Joseph Conrad packed to the gills with jaw-breaking sentences about “ontic vacancy” and “multiplicative inverses.” What to do? He could, of course, have given back sentences as good as he got, making it clear that he was one bright, up-and-coming cookie. Instead, Mallon served up the unvarnished truth about this book and dozens of others then pouring out of what were once our best university presses: “no one should write like this, ever.” But in arguing that critical prose was...


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