It isn't surprising that Oates' criticism lacks in large part the same quality unavailable in her fiction; shapeliness. She begins her essays briskly and to the point, then shreds away, trails off. Still, there are generous career-overviews of two major novelists here: an ostensible survey of the role of the city in fiction which is really a study of Bellow; and a solid, if unoriginal, examination of Updike's various psychological maneuvers. (Bech as "Updike's projection of an Updike unprotected by women, children, God"; Rabbit as "Updike-without-talent, Updike trapped in quantity.") On most of the male writers discussed here, in fact, Oates is usually canny--if occasionally destructive--as in a convincing essay on anti-feminine attitudes in Yeats, Lawrence, and Faulkner. But when she turns to female writers (other than the Bronte sisters, whose work she elevates above Melville's), Oates exhibits a curious combativeness: with Jean Stafford, Anne Sexton, Iris Murdoch, and Flannery O'Connor she seems like a hostess who first greets, then quickly and definitely snubs each arrival. And to treat Simone Well as Oates does--as an anorexic rather than a Pascalian philosopher--is the most flagrant misstep here: a remarkable obtuseness not easily explained in a writer of Oates' intelligence. For the Bellow and Updike reviews (and a good piece on the virtues of failure), then, the book has value; the rest is tight-spirited and anxious work of no great grace.