Guest Post: Balakian Award Winner Parul Sehgal Accepts

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

by Parul Sehgal | Mar-15-2011

This year’s Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, to Parul Sehgal, whose remarks are here:

I’m a bit overwhelmed. And I must confess that I’m wearing a sari not so much to signal ethnic pride than to conceal the knocking of my knees.

First of all, I must express my immense gratitude to the board of the National Book Critics Circle. To be acknowledged by my gurus, by writers I so respect, is an unprecedented thrill. And to be in the company, if only for a moment, with the finalists—Sarah L. Courteau, William Deresiewicz, Ruth Franklin, Kathryn Harrison—tremendous artists, all—leaves me on the verge of a swoon. Honestly, I’m less delighted than disbelieving. I haven’t been sleeping so well. I’ve been having nightmares of a bacon-clad Ron Charles trying to reclaim the award and prying it out of my presumptuous little paws.

It’s customary for the Balakian winner to share some of his or her ideas about book reviewing, to make a soothing speech about why reviews are useful and necessary and will survive. It’s the kind of speech I’m frankly pretty lousy at because 1.) I’m not very soothing and 2.) I hate the criteria. Utility, necessity, longevity—that’s not our bailiwick. Orthodonture is useful. A functioning judiciary and sewage system are necessary—and even in their absence, cities thrive (c.f. New Delhi).

The book review belongs to the province of pleasure. It directs readers to ideas that will stretch their sensoriums, that will give them a gladness, an exquisite fright or sorrow. And of course, our most skilled practitioners in this business of bliss produce reviews that are a veritable education, reviews that remind of me nothing so much as Eadward Muybridge’s photographs of the horse running, the gymnast leaping–those photographs that isolated locomotion, frame-by-frame. That’s what Daniel Mendelsohn or Sam Anderson (both Balakian winners, I realize) do for me. Their reviews show me how a mind moves. How it gathers itself, pounces, pivots, preens, reconsiders, repents, creeps to a conclusion. A review is someone performing thinking, and our finest reviewers are, to my mind, no less remarkable than our finest athletes: what do they do but exercise their precision, subtlety, and stamina for our enjoyment?

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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.

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.

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Scott McLemee Interviews Balakian Recipient Parul Sehgal

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

On Saturday, the NBCC announced that this year’s recipient of the annual Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing was Parul Sehgal. Here, in his regular column at Insidehighered.com, NBCC board member Scott McLemee speaks with Sehgal–Ed.

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 BookforumTime Out New York, and other publications. (A list of finalists in fiction, biography, and other categories is available here.) 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?

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(Something wonderful happened.)

The National Book Critics Circle Finalists for 2010 Awards

by Barbara Hoffert | Jan-22-2011

At a packed event attended by press, publishers, authors, and critics, held at WNYC’s Jerome L. Greene Performance Space in New York, the National Book Critics Circle announced the finalists for its 2010 book awards, presented by past NBCC award winners and finalists Joan Acocella, Jason Epstein, Blake Bailey, Stephen Burt, Carolyn Forche, Annette Gordon-Reed, Honor Moore and Zadie Smith…

Winners were announced for two signature NBCC Awards. The Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing went to Parul Sehgal. Finalists were Sarah L. Courteau, William Deresiewicz, Ruth Franklin, and Kathryn Harrison.  The Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award went to Dalkey Archive Press. For a complete list of finalists, read more.