Of John Updike's literary criticism, Elizabeth Hardwick writes: It "does not hug the shore but instead sails out in an open boat where his curiosity and great intelligence seem to sail on and on, wherever."

The same might well be said of Hardwick's own sprightly essays, collected, most recently, in "Sight Readings: American Fictions." Although most of these pieces were the result of arbitrary assignments from an assortment of publications (most notably The New York Review of Books), they are held together by the author's free-ranging, speculative intelligence and her flashing prose. Together, they provide the reader with a bright, breezy window on a century of American writing, from the novels of Edith Wharton and Henry James to the fiction of John Updike, Philip Roth and John Cheever.Discursive in form, meditative in mood, the essays tend to meander around their subjects, as Hardwick amplifies her observations with historical analogies, personal asides and sharp apercus. She writes with an ample knowledge of literature, scripture and pop culture, and she uses that knowledge to illuminate her subjects with witty, unexpected analogies that make her points with panache. She can also be very funny: Mary McCarthy's thinly veiled fictional portraits of her former husband Edmund Wilson, Ms. Hardwick wryly observes, were disguises "on the order of sunglasses."

Hardwick describes such Updike sex romps as "The Witches of Eastwick" and "Couples" as Restoration comedies, full of "loose-girdled ladies, toffs, lecherous squires" and bawdy theatrics. She suggests that Philip Roth's novel "Operation Shylock" grapples with charges that he has defamed the Jews, allowing us to think of him as a kind of "Richard Jewell, falsely accused in the 1996 Olympic bombing in Atlanta." And she compares Gertrude Stein's demanding, repetitious oeuvre to that of Philip Glass.

Her sketches of the writers themselves can be equally entertaining - and telling. Stein is described as being as "sturdy as a turnip," a "tough root" native to the Old World, while Cheever is depicted as an "Episcopalian anarch" who "existed lifelong in captivities imposed by the complications of his nature, his masks, his loyalties and the protection of his talent."