The Critic's Demon
Nona Balakian was an editor at The New York Times Book Review who joined its staff in the 1940s, after studying with the legendary modernist literary critic Lionel Trilling at Columbia University. She was one of the founders of the National Book Critics Circle, which, following her death in 1991, created the annual citation for excellence in reviewing named in her honor. Upon receiving the award a few years ago, I wanted to find out more about Balakian and tracked down Critical Encounters, Literary Views and Reviews, 1953-1977, a collection of her writings published by Bobbs-Merrill in 1978. Balakian sent an inscribed copy to Diana Trilling, who, apart from being the professor’s widow, was a critic of some eminence in her own right. Eventually the volume ended up at a secondhand bookshop, which then sold it to me, via Amazon -- evidence that sic transit gloria, as if a book reviewer needed any more proof of it.
In a sharply worded essay by Balakian from 1968 called “The Lowly State of Book Reviewing,” she complained that literary journalism often consisted of “mere puffs based on publicity releases, but less well written and edited.” The selection of books that newspapers covered was at times inscrutable. “When a frivolous book by Patrick Dennis (author of Auntie Mame) was given equal space with a Cambridge historian’s biography of the Earl of Southampton," Balakian wrote, "one wondered if the juxtaposition of these reviews was dictated by anything aside from the fact that the Earl and Mr. Dennis sported similar beards!”
But there were exceptions. She noted the rare occasions when she'd found reviewers who wrote about new titles out of genuine engagement with the books, rather than just "drifting with the tide," and who expressed their judgments forthrightly, with some individuality of expression.
On Saturday, the NBCC announced that the latest recipient of the Balakian is Parul Sehgal, a young critic whose work appears in Bookforum, Time Out New York, and other publications. (A list of finalists in fiction, biography, and other categories is available at the NBCC site.) Despite chairing the Balakian committee, I had no real sense of this year’s winner -- apart from a certainty that her writing admirably met Nona Balakian’s demands. So I contacted Sehgal for an interview by e-mail. A transcript of the exchange follows; a PDF containing the work she submitted for consideration by the NBCC is available here.
Q: From Facebook one learns that you are 29 years old and a nonfiction editor at PW. Would you please say a little about yourself -- family background, education, any unpublished novels you may have on a hard drive, that sort of thing?
A: My parents were children of the Partition -- India's splitting from Pakistan -- and we joke that once they made it over the mountains into India, they couldn't stop moving. Once a refugee, always a refugee. I grew up in India, Hungary, the Philippines, and -- most exotically of all (to my Eastern cast of mind) -- Northern Virginia. I studied political science and heartbreak as an undergraduate at McGill University and moved back to Delhi after graduating, to become the world's worst NGO employee.
I do like cities that force me to stay indoors. Montreal's bitter winters, Delhi's scorching summers and restrictions on female mobility -- combined with both cities' profusion of secondhand bookshops -- conspired to keep me reading. I moved back stateside to attend Columbia's MFA program, and lucked into an editing position at Publishers Weekly, where I work with very smart people and tax our copy editor mercilessly with my inability to grasp the difference between which and that.
And of course I have an unpublished (unpublishable?) novel! It's a big bag of fragments and character sketches and no plot whatsoever, and I'm terribly fond of it. Every few months, I dust it off and tousle it a bit, add a comma, delete an adverb. I fuss with it like it's my garden.
Q: You may be the first winner of the Balakian whose entire career as a critic has unfolded in the wake of the shift from print to digital publishing. How conscious of that are you? Are there critics, magazines, newspapers from "the old regime" that have mattered to you? Or does a new landscape make old landmarks useless?
A: I'm inclined to alarmism of all sorts, and the shift from print to digital publishing used to provide me with some fine moments of terror -- until fairly recently. My attachment to the physical book, newspaper, or magazine cannot be overemphasized. (Winston Churchill once said, "There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man," and I've always believed that there's something about how a book looks and feels that's very good for me -- why? The fetishist never asks why!) Plus reading online sometimes feels like speed dating; here I am giving various articles a few seconds to seduce me.
Of course the pellucid, direct, and amusing will win. Of course the difficult, demanding, and mysterious will lose. So I try to keep steeped in the real as much as possible: I like my New York Review of Books and TLS crumpled and coffee-ringed. But the more I look at the worlds of print and digital publishing complementing, rather than opposing, each other, the happier I become. I love the conversations about books that are blossoming online at Salon and The Rumpus, say. I love how Bookforum online and Bookslut let up-and-coming writers work in long forms.
The more I quell my Chicken Little instincts, the more I allow myself to recognize -- and enjoy -- this moment of incredible intellectual abundance. And in terms of whether the "old regime" still matters, in criticism, we're always standing on the shoulders of giants. How can we write about photography without wrestling with Sontag? About the virtues of free indirect style without Wood? All my favorites, Edmund Wilson, Pauline Kael, Susan Sontag, Daniel Mendelsohn -- they're eternal.
Q: You have written about novels, serious nonfiction, and even the occasional scholarly work. How do you understand your role as reviewer? To put it another way, when you finish a piece that you think has turned out particularly well, what has it done that leaves you satisfied with it?
A: I try very hard to be fair to the author, honest with the reader, and to create something sturdy and beautiful in its own right. More presumptuously, I suppose I'm trying, in Baudelaire's words, "to transform my pleasure into knowledge."
Q: Well, okay -- but whose knowledge? The reader's? Your own? And what clinches your sense that the transformation has happened?
A: I suppose it's my own knowledge I'm referring to, but because criticism is performative, the reader is implicitly included. Virginia Woolf has that great line in The Common Reader, that try as we might to read impartially, "there is always a demon in us who whispers, 'I hate, I love.' " I've always hoped that it might be possible to domesticate the demon, and that if we can understand what in us quickens or recoils and why, some larger truth can be extracted -- even if it's just about our own tastes. How do I know if I have accomplished this? I don't. I wish I did. Nothing I write is finished. It is abandoned!
Q:Sounds like an homage to Walter Benjamin.... (To gloss this: Besides leaving his magnum opus as a mass of unfinished notes, Benjamin also once wrote, "The work is the death mask of its conception." A gloomy fellow, but that aphorism is a good cure for perfectionism.)
Q: Benjamin is the great instance of a critic who shifted from the university world to making his living by writing for magazines and newspapers. Was there anything in your own academic training that proved useful or formative in your critical writing? Or, conversely, anything you had to un-learn?
A: That's such a good question. I studied political science. I wanted to understand "who gets what and why," but I was instead waylaid by theory, theories about theories, and texts so mazy that they seemed to have been explicitly designed to baffle. Political science doesn't care about your pleasure -- there're not many master (or even inadvertent) stylists in the field; it's not like philosophy where you slog through Kant to be rewarded with Nietzsche! -- and thank God for it. As a student, you're forced to build up your stamina as a reader -- I'm sure many students in the humanities experience this. You learn to sit with the text past any point of desire or even comprehension. And it makes you humble. It makes you the supplicant. I also think that political science, of all the humanities, can make you very good at spotting subtext. Me, I think all texts are riddles. I think they're all concealing something -- maybe even from the writer -- and I'm quite sure that one of the reasons I read this particular way is that dependency theory, my particular favorite, trains you to be very good at sniffing out hidden agendas and the dread specter of imperial ambition!
As for the unlearning, I'm still purging myself of cant. It's been three whole weeks since I invoked "hegemony." There is hope.