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Edelstein became a journalist after graduating from Harvard in 1981. He is often associated with close friend, fellow film critic, and iconoclast Pauline Kael. He is also credited with coining the term "torture porn," a genre to describe such movies as Hostel and Saw.
He is the author, with independent film producer Christine Vachon of Killer Films, of Shooting to Kill (Avon Books, 1998). He is also the author of two plays, Feed the Monkey (Loeb Experimental Theater, Harvard College, 1993) and Blaming Mom (Watermark Theater, New York City, 1994).
In 2018, WHYY-FM, the producer of Fresh Air, ended its relationship with Edelstein. Edelstein made a joke on his Facebook page about a rape scene in the film Last Tango in Paris which some viewed as "offensive and unacceptable." Edelstein stated that he was unaware of the link between the film and rape, apologized and deleted the post. Edelstein was defended by media outlets such as Salon and the editorial board of the New York Post and The American Conservative.