Scott McLemee on Balakian Winner Parul Sehgal

(From Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle)

by Scott McLemee | Mar-15-2011

Balakian award winner Scott McLemee, for three years chair of the Balakian committee, welcomes the newest Balakian honoree, Parul Sehgal:

Next month marks the 20th anniversary of the death of Nona Balakian, the founding member of the National Book Critics Circle whose memory we honor each year with the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing — presented to a member of the NBCC whose recent work best exemplifies her exacting standards of literary journalism. The finalists this year are Sarah Courteau, William Deresiewicz, Ruth Franklin, and Kathryn Harrison, with the award going to Parul Sehgal.

This year, as it happens, four of the five are women. Nobody on the Balakian committee discussed this, or even noticed it, until well after the voting was done and the results announced to the board. But admittedly it does seem like grist for the old “what message was the NBCC trying to send?” speculation mill.

Parul Sehgal has written for Bookforum, Time Out, and Publisher’s Weekly (where she is an editor). Her reviews – marked by a knack for apt characterization – are marvels of compression, which remains a virtue even in an age when one may publish five thousand words as easily as five hundred.

I can’t resist quoting from an interview she gave to the Columbia Spectator last month.The first reading of a book is, she says, a matter of confronting “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. 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.”

This is reviewing as engagement, rather than pronouncement.

I have chaired the Balakian committee for the past three years, but tonight is the end of my time on the board, and that means I am liberty to reveal something:  namely, the message that the NBCC is trying to send by honoring Parul Sehgal with the Balakian Citation. And that is, simply, that the culture can use more critics like Parul Sehgal.

Read Scott McLemee’s interview with Parul Sehgal here.


Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs, a weekly column about books and ideas, for Inside Higher Ed. His reviews and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Nation, Bookforum, Newsday, and elsewhere. He was a contributing editor for Lingua Franca from 1995 until 2001, and the senior writer covering the humanities for The Chronicle of Higher Education from 2001 to 2005; and he won the NBCC’s Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing for 2003. As a member of the NBCC board, he chaired the Balakian committee for three years. He blogs at Quick Study.

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