The Art of the Review V: Nilanjana Roy

Parul Sehgal — PWxyz, May 6th, 2011

If the book critic is, in John Freeman’s words, a ”public reader,” then Nilanjana Roy is that and much more; her blog The Akhond of Swatis the bustling agora of Indian letters (or at least Indian writing in English). The New Delhi-based writer (and her very engaged commentariat) tackle the latest books, book scandals (hello Greg Mortenson), news tie-ins (a round-up of Osama Bin Laden biographies) — as well as a host of questions specific to Indian publishing (notions of “authentic” Indian writing, translation issues.)

She started reviewing at age 17, “20 years ago, when Indian publishing in English was still young, and when readers like me switched between languages—Bengali to English, English to Hindi—without self-consciousness; we read the way we spoke, changing languages like you would the gears of your car.”

She’s been a book reviews editor at Outlook and Biblio, and today, when she’s not instigating debates over on her blog, she writes a column at the Business Standard and contributes to the International Herald Tribune. Warm, wry, and accessible to a fault– even when covering archaic rape laws or how parallel imports will affect the Indian publishing market — she is a bridge between text and reader, between the safety of our tastes and the terror of the new.

We chat about Rushdie vs. Naipal, the virtues of a “magpie mind,” and why critics shouldn’t review bestsellers.

We’ll get to more high-minded discussions in a bit, but I can’t resist asking about the feuds in Indian letters. What is going on over there?! Since January alone, there’s been Hartosh Singh Bal vs. William DalyrymplePankaj Mishra vs. Patrick French, Mihir Sharma vs. Anand Giridharadas. As you’ve noted, it’s the same argument with many avatars that’s been happening for a long time: Who has the right to write about India? Who is Indian enough? Whence this anxiety of authenticity? Do you find these conversations and quarrels profitable, resolvable, or even interesting?

I used to run a litblog called Kitabkhana, and going through the archives is a great way to realize how much these feuds and spats resemble the grand — and petty — intrigues of the Mughal courts. Some of it just stems from a historical fondness for argument, and it’s not all bad: Mihir Sharma’s contrarian reviews can be cutting, but they also have substance to them, and you need a Mihir as an antidote to the culture of respectful politeness, or the mindless praise allocated to books that are seen to be successful.

Naipaul vs. Rushdie is a beautiful example of a feud that covers some serious ground — the differences between their approaches to history are sharp, and worth paying attention to, because each offers a distinct and mutually contradictory way of making a way in the world. It’s never been carried out by the participants themselves, but by groups of historians, writers, thinkers who fall into either the Naipaul or the Rushdie camp, and the disputes range from the absurd to the trivial to the deeply serious.

The obsession with authenticity, is to my mind an empty quest — you’re getting into a ridiculous debate over whether the urban Indian, for instance, will ever be as authentic as her counterpart from the village, you’re evaluating different ways of writing India and elevating one over the other as the only true way. But the exasperation, the sense of disenfranchisement on the part of writers who don’t have the kind of easy access a French or a Giridharadas might, the impatience with a West that seems to want only a certain kind of facile, tourist’s guidebook writing from India, that is not interested in more complex narratives — these are very real. Giridharadas and French are almost accidental targets — the real battle is over an anxiety over what kind of portrait of the country will emerge, and an impatience sometimes with narratives that either simplify or contradict the version a Pankaj Mishra sees as the true story, for instance.

The realities of the marketplace currently dictate that Indian writers working in Indian languages other than English will rarely find an audience outside the country; that causes bitterness. The marketplace also dictates that Indian writers in English will of necessity be judged, bought, sold and read by editors and publishers working to the tastes of the European and American markets, which currently control English-language publishing — a fact that is often distasteful, frightening, or daunting to many Indians.

Hidden under all of this is the real fear: that we are losing our own distinct voice, that we are losing the right to tell our own stories without glossaries and without the necessity of explanation, that we speak and write and think in a borrowed tongue — English is an Indian language, but it is still an alien Indian language. So all of this makes these spats interesting; resolvable, no, but profitable, yes.

Continue reading

The Art of the Review IV: Stephen Burt


Parul Sehgal–PWxyz, April 8th, 2011

It’s National Poetry Month, and we’re extremely lucky to have Stephen Burt with us. Considered to be the leading poetry critic of his generation, Burt writes about poets and poems with more subtlety, shrewdness, and heart than just about anyone (he’s also a bit better-acquainted with the X-Men than you’d expect).

He’s a prolific reviewer, a professor of English at Harvard, the author of two poetry collections (Popular Music and Parallel Play) and critical studies including The Art of the Sonnet and the sublime Close Calls with Nonsense, an introduction to reading new poetry. Oh, and he’s also at work on four new books. Excellent.

Burt talks to us about how books are like people, why criticism is like making chairs, and how to review even the dullest book.

What drew you to criticism?

I’m tempted to say that criticism itself drew me, in the sense that a comic book artist draws the character in the comic book: that I am its invented creature. Resisting the temptation, I’ll say that I grew up indulged, heard and overheard by parents and teachers as I opined on the relative merits of X-Men storylines, for example, or prog-rock albums, and I gradually discovered that other people—even people I had never met!–might read my opinions if I researched them and wrote them down in the right ways. By that time they were opinions about other art works and other art forms, most often and most happily about poetry, although I still have opinions about the X-Men, if asked.

Another answer: in my teens I read Randall Jarrell and William Empson and Hugh Kenner and (by that time I was enrolled in her courses) Helen Vendler. Even before my teens, if I remember rightly, I was reading popular science explainers and language mavens and other explainers of complicated things in clarified, non-esoteric language. I was storing up models, without knowing why.

I have been fortunate enough to be taken up by congenial editors early. Not all critics, not all reviewers, get that.

I read a wonderful interview you did where you said the following: “Reviewing, like all other literary criticism, like the making of chairs, like the making of film scores, is an applied art: it’s heteronomous, serving ends outside itself, and should not let its own artfulness detract from those functions.” What function do your reviews serve? And how do you know–can you know?–if you’ve succeeded?
Time to quote Auden! “What is the function of a critic? So far as I am concerned he can do me one or more of the following services: 1. Introduce me to authors or works. 2. Convince me that I had undervalued an author or a work because I had not read them carefully enough. 3. Show me relations between works of different ages and cultures. 4. Give a ‘reading’ of a work which increases my understanding of it. 5. Throw light upon the process of artistic ‘Making.’ 6. Throw light upon the relation of art to life, to science, economics, ethics, religion, etc.” (This and much else from the essay “Reading,” at the front of Auden’s The Dyer’s Hand.)

Reviewers can do all those things. I hope that I have done them, now and again.

Reviews can also clear space for the appreciation of neglected, undervalued or misunderstood art by dispelling bad arguments about art, or by trying to clear worse art out of the way when it seems to be obstructing the view of better art. (Sometimes the better art and the worse art are by the same artist.)

Continue reading

The Art of the Review III: Michael Miller

Parul Sehgal–PWxyz, April 1st, 2011

We’re thrilled to have Michael Miller in the hot seat this week. Miller got his start at the Village Voice and has since written for the Voice Literary Supplement and been an editor at Time Out New York–where he curated an extraordinary book section that celebrated both the popular and the recondite, the traditional and the experimental. Always pushing the reader to more complicated, challenging pleasures, he brought Brian Evenson, Lydia Davis, and Rudolph Wurlitzer to a whole new audience.

Miller is now a Reviews Editor at Bookforum where he’s also (full disclosure) my superb editor.

He chats with us about lazy critics, Renata Adler’s Speedboat, Stephen Elliot’s good taste, and why being too “right” about a book can make for a dull review.

Give me a sense of your average day. How many books do you get/how do you separate the wheat from the chaff? How do you decide to farm out reviews?

I deal mostly with fiction and poetry, plus some nonfiction books about pop culture, music, and film. I’m not sure how many books arrive each day, but the stacks are high! I pick books in a variety of ways. Sometimes I’ll see a book by an author I’ve read and liked in the past. For instance, I read Ron Padgett’s biography of Joe Brainard, so I’ve set aside his new book of poems, How Long. Same goes for Jo Ann Beard: She has a piece I love in one of those Best American Essays anthologies (the one edited by David Foster Wallace), so I’m definitely going to check out her new novel, In Zanesville. I also hear about a lot of things word of mouth: I think Stephen Elliott has good taste, so I usually check out what he chooses for his reading group at The Rumpus. That’s how I heard about Deborah Baker’s The Convert.

I can’t speak for the other editors here, but when I’m assigning reviews, I try to find someone who knows the territory but not too well. Ideally, a reviewer will be just a little out of his or her element. That leaves room for some original thinking—even surprise—on the critic’s part.

In your review of Mark Gluth’s The Late Work of Margaret Kroftis, you praise its “direct, no-fat sentence style,” the author’s “creative command of his cultural references,” the book’s ability to quietly “break your heart.” These are all qualities I’ve admired in your reviews–economy, smart allusions, an emotional and intellectual engagement with the book. When you’re reviewing, do you have some sort of criteria that you hold the book to? Or does every book demand or invent its own set of criteria?

Continue reading

The Art of the Review II: Ron Charles

Parul Sehgal– PWxyz, March 25th, 2011

Clearly, we can’t get enough of Ron Charles. And can you blame us? Even before his alter ego, the zany Totally Hip Book Video Reviewer, peered up at us through strips of raw bacon, the longtime book critic has been charming, disarming, and educating us every week in the pages of the Washington Post.

The winner of the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Balakian Award (hisacceptance speech ought to be required viewing), he’s beloved for his humility and playful prose, for his reviews that, in Scott McLemee’s words, “display a knack for characterizing the shape and style of a book. Charles writes about craft without turning his reviews into manifestos for a single school of it.”

We–the tragically unhip–catch up with Charles and chat about Peter Carey, pornographers, and the virtues of curbing your enthusiasm.

Where did the Totally Hip Video Book Reviewer come from?

I’ve always made short funny videos for my family, and I started toying with doing a new series featuring a character I called the Super Book Critic who imagined that he had superhuman powers (it mainly featured me getting books out of trees). The idea evolved, and my wife and I thought, why don’t we take the review in this week’s paper—it was Mona Simpson’s Hollywood—and film it in three or four minutes? We ran around the house, and I acted it out a bit. I put it up on YouTube and got something like 3000 hits in 24 hrs. The response was incredible. I’d expected to hear from my manager or someone on the 5th floor telling me, “Take this down. You’re embarrassing us!”—or worse. But instead I got a note saying that the Post video team wanted to produce and edit the videos. But that would have been a whole other job, and it would have to be very professional. Instead we’ve kept it as a very casual arrangement. Most weekends, my wife and I make a video and hand it in to my editors on Monday. The audience is not that large—

But we are fervent.

People are being very nice about it.

I especially enjoyed your review of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Speaking of Franzen (what a segue!), with the Franzenfreude episode, increasing attention is finally being paid to how infrequently authors who are women and people of color are reviewed compared to their white, male counterparts. Is this something the Washington Post is trying to address?

Continue reading

Anne Carson: Evoking the Starry Lad

The Irish Times, March 19, 2011

On Thursday the Canadian poet Anne Carson speaks at the Poetry Now festival. She tells PARUL SEHGAL about her elegy in verse for her late sibling, Michael

‘So, Pinhead, d’you attain wisdom yet?”

In 1979 Anne Carson’s brother fled Canada to escape being arrested for dealing drugs. For 22 years he roamed India and Europe under false passports, writing home infrequently and calling only half a dozen times. He resurfaced in 2000, calling the poet at her office, using his pet name, Pinhead, for his brainy younger sister. He lived in Copenhagen now. He wanted to see her. He wanted her to meet his wife and his dog. They made a plan, and a week before she was due to visit she received another call from Denmark. Her brother was dead.

“His widow says he wanted to be cast in the sea, and so she did this,” she writes in her astonishing elegy to her brother, Nox. “There is no stone and as I say he had changed his name,” she writes. Nox, a grey, squat slab of a book – a book in a box, as self-enclosed as grief; a book so bulky it cannot be carried but must be visited – is his headstone. In the months after her brother’s death Carson gathered his fragments, his letters and photographs. She pasted them into a blank book and inscribed his name, in her own hand, over and over again on the title page: Michael, Michael, Michael .

“He was such a puzzle,” she says. “I think by writing, and I wanted a way to think about him.” We meet at a cafe near New York University, where she is a “distinguished poet-in-residence” and a visiting professor in the creative-writing programme, and strain to be heard over the hissing cappuccino machines.

As visiting professor, in the autumn term, Carson teaches a typically idiosyncratic course on collaboration with her friend Robert Currie, who helped to design Nox. (“We just give the students tasks, like burn something and make something out of the ash.”) On Thursday Carson will deliver the keynote address at dlr Poetry Now, Ireland’s largest poetry festival, in Dún Laoghaire. She’s planning to talk about “untranslatable things” and draw on Detroit’s Heidelberg Project – prime Carson source material. In one of the American Midwest’s most ravaged cities, a local artist named Tyree Guyton has spent 25 years beautifying two blocks, salvaging materials and pasting them to the outsides of derelict houses. He’s covered houses with dolls, bicycle wheels, car parts. The ghost town gleams.

Continue reading

The Art of the Review I: Laura Miller

by Parul Sehgal, PWxyz, Mar. 18, 2011

We’re happy to announce a new series on PWxyz–The Art of the Review. Every Friday, we’ll be interviewing our favorite reviewers, talking technique, and taking the pulse of criticism today: How do critics select books to review? Have they ever been wrong about a book? How much impact do reviews have anyway? How do critics in print media feel about their online counterparts and vice versa–are they in league or at odds? We’ll be talking to reviewers at established dailies, at up-and-coming review websites, and working all over the world–in New York, Dublin, and New Delhi.

We’re kicking things off with an interview with Laura Miller, author of The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, and cofounder of Salon.com for which she writes a regular column on books, beloved for its wit, directness, and deep engagement with (and omnivorous appetite for) books of all genres.

She talks to us about how book critics have let down the public, why she likes reading–but doesn’t trust–James Wood’s reviews, and why everyone should at least try to read Twilight.

You’re one of the reviewers I most enjoy following—not least because I can never predict what you’re going to cover next. You write about a novel, like Room, one week and Let the Swords Encircle Me (the world’s longest, most intricate account of Iranian politics) the next. And the week after that, you’re on to Yellow Dirt, an exposé on uranium mining in the American Southwest. How do you decide what to cover?

I cover books that I’m enthusiastic about. I look at books in the same category, sample a bunch, and pick what I like the best. My general rule is in a month of 4 weeks, I do one fiction book and 3 nonfiction books: one memoir or autobiography, one history, and something contemporary. There are a few things I’m not into—I’m not big on military history, and sports books put me to sleep—but I do have broad tastes. Any book that someone tells me about or sends me, be it self-published or whatever, I try to look at the first couple paragraphs at least.

Why do you review so much more nonfiction than fiction?

At Salon, we know exactly how many people read every single story. When it comes to reviews, people are interested in reading the reviews of nonfiction books. Maybe it’s because even if they never read the book, they’ll learn something from the review.

“Franzenfreude” and the recent reports from FAIR and Vida have drawn attention to how infrequently authors who are women and/or people of color are reviewed compared to their white, male counterparts. Is this disparity something you think about or try to address in your review coverage?

Continue reading

Native Son: A Profile of Ishmael Reed

By Parul Sehgal, Publishers Weekly, Mar 14, 2011

Norman Mailer walks into a bar.  Not just any bar, though: it’s the legendary White Horse Tavern, where Dylan Thomas drank himself to death, and where, in the 1960s, a young jazz journalist from Buffalo, N.Y., named Ishmael Reed, liked to lurk and stargaze.

“I was so green,” Reed remembers. “But I walked over. Told him he was the greatest writer since Chaucer. He invited me to join his party and bought me drinks all night. I love this town. I couldn’t have made it as an author without coming to New York. But if I hadn’t have left, I’d have perished from an overdose of affection. I was getting loved to death.”

That’s not hyperbole. For a writer whose sensibility has always tilted toward the surreal and experimental (Nathanael West was an early and important influence), whose political incorrectness has been so brazen, his public feuds with other writers (pre-eminently feminists) so frequent and bitter, and his critique of white America so relentless, it might seem astonishing that he’s been as lavishly feted by the very establishment and in the very mainstream he typically excoriates. His books have twice been nominated for the National Book Award, and he’s received a Los Angeles Book Prize, the Langston Hughes Medal, the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award, and fellowships from the Guggenheim and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1998 he received a MacArthur “genius” grant. He’s been consistently productive, with nine novels, six poetry collections, eight books of essays, one libretto, 13 anthologies, and six plays. He blogs. He recently retired after teaching at Berkeley for 35 years. He’s the founder of his own publishing imprint, his own jazz quintet, two online literary magazines, and a literary foundation that presents the annual American Book Award. Even the Reed home seems like a happy hive of continuous creativity: he and his wife of 40 years, the choreographer Carla Blank, co-edited the literary anthology, Pow Wow: American Short Fiction from Then to Now, and play in his quintet together, Reed on piano, Blank on violin. His imprint recently published his mother’s memoir. And every Saturday morning, he holds an informal writing workshop with his two daughters—both writers—at a local Starbucks.

But Reed, now 73, proudly insists on wearing the mantle of the outsider. “I view myself as a one-man communication center that provides a check on propaganda attacks on besieged groups and individuals who don’t have the means to fight back,” he says. For a new generation, he might be most familiar as the Herzog-like character frequenting the op-ed pages of the New York Times, Boston Globe, and the Wall Street Journalcondemning the bowdlerization of Huckleberry Finn, and protesting damaging portrayals of black men in the films Precious and The Color Purple and in the television series, The Wire. Reed says, “My work holds up the mirror to hypocrisy, which puts me in a tradition of American writing that reaches back to Nathaniel Hawthorne.”
Continue reading