A critical look at criticism with Parul Sehgal, SOA ’10

By Allison Malecha

(from the Columbia Spectator, 2/14/2010)

Words on someone who writes words on words—this is the result of a profile on a book critic. Parul Sehgal, Columbia University School of the Arts ’10, is the Nonfiction and Audio Reviews Editor for Publishers Weekly, a regular contributor to Time Out New York and O Magazine, and the 2011 recipient of the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian Citation in Reviewing, announced Jan. 22.

“Only in doing book criticism are you doing criticism in the exact same mode that the work was done. Dance doesn’t have it. Music doesn’t have it,” Sehgal said, referencing contemporary critic Sam Anderson. Sehgal is currently working on her own thrice-riddled project of words—The Art of the Review, in which she discusses method with 10 to 12 of her favorite critics.

The piece is set to appear soon on Publishers Weekly’s news blog PWxyz.

Before coming to Columbia for an MFA in fiction writing, Sehgal studied political science as an undergrad at McGill and planned to work at nonprofits in India. “Like most people who do love reading and writing, I wanted to do something but … I had no idea how it would translate,” Sehgal said. “I started writing some fiction, took a few playwriting classes, and really said to hell with it—let’s see what I can do.”

The Publishers Weekly job, for which the SoA Writing Chair, Professor Binnie Kirshenbaum, encouraged her to apply, first introduced Sehgal to writing reviews. “The reviews are anonymous so it really isn’t about you … you’re in service of the book,” Sehgal said of her continued experience there.

Making the jump from fiction to critical work might seem to give creative freedom the backseat, but Sehgal finds that the two fields complement each other well. A flair for description is tangible even in her reviews. “It makes me pretty humble in regards to writing … keeps me always on the side of the writer a little bit,” Sehgal said. “Even the word critic for me feels very presumptuous, because I’m still so young and green.”

The Balakian Award stands as an obvious contestation to this statement. “Great gurus of mine win this … so I feel very pleased, and I’m entirely disbelieving,” Sehgal said, adding half-jokingly, “I’m kind of grumpy, because now there’s pressure.”

Sehgal finds herself often writing reviews in conversation with her younger sister, rather than back to the author or to the reader like most other critics. Elaborating on her method, Sehgal said that she reads the work over first to eliminate any “knee-jerk responses to techniques or topics.”

“The second time I read it, I really am looking at what does the book say it’s going to do and does it fulfill that,” Sehgal said. “The third time, I kind of dip in and out of it as I’m actually writing the review … and often as I’m writing, my opinion of the book radically changes.” Nuanced perspective is accessed through delving so far into a piece of writing.

Sehgal hopes to return to fiction writing at some point and hints at a longer nonfiction project currently in the works, but she doesn’t seem inclined to give up reviewing anytime soon. “I’m a cozy, shy person, and I just really like to get cozy in my cubicle and read a bunch of books,” she said. Her words might prove comforting to campus book lovers—reading may be a viable career path after all.

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