On ‘Flawless’ as Feminist Declaration

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Magazine, March 24, 2015

Something interesting happens when a word that suggests action is applied to beauty: It recasts beauty as something that can be done, pulled off — not just possessed. On Instagram, Tumblr and Twitter, when “flawless” is used as praise, it implies a friendly interest in workmanship — in a brow arched just so, in contouring cream ingeniously applied, in effort and experimentation as much as the final effect. True, “flawless” has its own conventions and idiosyncrasies: It usually refers to a certain kind of regal woman — think Beyoncé, Rihanna, Michelle Obama — with a sculpted look that feels achieved (also, possibly, complicated and expensive to maintain). But its abiding spirit is generous and even vaguely campy; it honors the artifice in all beauty and is skeptical of anything wanly “natural” or “authentic” that conceals the trouble it took. Its ethos could be Simone de Beauvoir’s observation that “one is not born but rather becomes a woman.”

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‘Huck Finn’s America’ by Andrew Levy

Huckleberry Finn / SmokingBy Parul Sehgal, The New York Times, Feb. 4, 2015

The famous preface to “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” reads like a goad: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”

No book is as regularly ransacked. Bowdlerized, when not outright banned, from the moment of its publication in 1884, it has been read like a rune and interrogated for its embodiment of American anxieties about race and freedom and language, the call of the open road (or river). “The brilliance of ‘Huckleberry Finn,’ ” Toni Morrison wrote, “is that it is the argument it raises.”

‘The Sexual Night’ by Pascal Quignard

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Illustration from “The Poem of the Pillow,” by Utamaro.

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Book Review, December 5, 2014

There is some unpardonably bad sex writing, most of it unprintable here (and, in a just world, anywhere). We must contend with “uterine” as a favorite adjective. We must contend with a tender, anxious regard for virility and the concomitant dread of the “female sex organ,” variously depicted as cave or coffin. We must suffer nonsense like: “Woman steals sperm as Prometheus stole fire. Stealing what belongs to the gods.” Or, worse, Quignard’s odd ideas about evolution: “There is only one human posture — standing upright on account of the erection.”

A Year in Reading

Picture 17By Parul Sehgal, The Millions, Dec. 17, 2013

The plan was to have an orderly Year in Reading. To finally fill the gaps, dammit, to scale The Magic Mountain and read Hollinghurst properly instead of flipping around for the filthy bits. To read sitting up for a change — like a human adult — rather than burrowing in bedclothes like a vole.

But it was comfort I craved, reliable pleasures: Anne Carson and Elizabeth Hardwick, Sarah Waters’s novels, Virginia Woolf’s diaries, Zadie Smith’s essays, Martin Amis’s reviews (on Malcolm Lowry: “To make a real success of being an alcoholic, to go all the way with it, you need to be other things too: shifty, unfastidious, solipsistic, insecure and indefatigable. Lowry was additionally equipped with an extra-small penis, which really seemed to help.”). I read so much Larkin I worried I’d start sprouting anti-Indian attitudes myself.

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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.

That Which Does Not Kill Us: PW Talks with John Rich

by Parul Sehgal — Publishers Weekly, 11/2/2009

Physician Rich investigates how powerfully—and frequently—post-traumatic stress disorders influence the lives of young African-American men who’ve survived a violent assault in Wrong Place, Wrong Time (Reviews, Oct. 5).

What was the impetus for the project?

Working at Boston City Hospital, I’d see so many young people in pain, so many young people who were angry, and I realized that our day-to-day hospital discourse didn’t have a place for them—other than as victims of violence. When I’d sit opposite these young people—who, if you saw their lives written up, might seem menacing—they weren’t menacing at all. Their distress was really close to the surface. I began thinking that there’s a disconnect, even in my own mind, in my own deeply held assumptions as an African-American man. I thought it was important to go on a journey of understanding: what’s it like from their perspective? And how might that inform what I might do as a physician?

You write that many of your subjects exhibit the same post-traumatic stress disorders as war veterans and rape victims. What behaviors have you seen specifically?

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Searching for Whitopia

by Rich Benjamin

Parul Sehgal Bookforum Oct. 15, 2009

For two years, Rich Benjamin insinuated himself in some of the fastest-growing communities in America: “Whitopias,” places in Georgia, Idaho, Utah—and even parts of Manhattan’s Upper East Side—where white people are currently migrating in massive numbers. Searching for what these “refugees of diversity” are running from and towards, he attended churches and poker games, posed as a prospective house buyer, hosted potlucks, and even participated in a three-day retreat with white separatists. It’s a topical and conceptually sensitive project brimming with promise, especially given Benjamin’s self-professed boredom with the black-white divide (Benjamin himself is black). The 26,909-mile journey recounted in Whitopia, he points out, “is about our nation’s future, not about how white and black people are getting along.”

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