Interrogation

“It Always Felt Subversive”

As a child, Parul Sehgal had to sneak books out of her parents’ library. Now the New York Times book critic talks about the bliss of reading while serving many masters.

Headshot of Parul Sehgal.
Parul Sehgal in 2015.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by PEN American Center.

On this week’s episode of my podcast, I Have to Ask, I spoke to Parul Sehgal, a book critic at the New York Times. Before becoming one of the paper’s full-time critics last year, Sehgal was an editor at the Times Book Review. She received her MFA from Columbia University prior to that. Below is an edited excerpt from the show. In it, we discuss looking back on the novels of bad men, how she chooses what to review, and growing up in a home where books were a “highly controlled substance.”

You can find links to every episode here; the entire audio interview is below. Please subscribe to I Have to Ask wherever you get your podcasts.

Isaac Chotiner: You have a job that I think a lot of people would describe as a dream job or at least dorky people like myself would describe as a dream job. What is the day in the life of a person who reviews books for the New York Times full time like?

Parul Sehgal: It’s constant panic, and guilt, and shame. Also pajamas. No, it’s a great gig, I’m not going to lie. It’s a lot of reading, it’s a lot of writing, and it’s a lot of just trying to catch up, and also trying to see what other people are reading and writing. It’s monkish, but if you are into that sort of thing, it’s bliss.

But with that, I think what propels me is also a feeling of responsibility. It’s also a feeling of working in a very strange genre, in that when you write a book review—and the book reviews we write at the Times are roughly 800 to 1,000 words—you’re serving a lot of masters. You’re trying to introduce a book and sometimes even a whole cultural conversation to somebody who’s just picking up the paper, and at the same time, you want to reach people that are well-versed in the subject matter and caught up in the debate, and at the same time you’re serving other masters, too. You are sort of thinking about literature more broadly. You’re thinking about the writer. You’re thinking about your own tastes. So it’s a lot to do in a small amount of space. My favorite quote about criticism comes from Zoë Heller from her book Notes on a Scandal, and she says that kissing is trying to be creative in a small space. That’s what criticism can feel like on a good day—like kissing.

How does “serving multiple masters” manifest itself in choosing books, as well as reviewing them?

It’s a matter of balancing your own curiosity but at the same time serving the reader. It may sound silly to put it this way, but I do sometimes think about my job as an act of care for the reader. I do think about somebody opening the paper who is just wondering what to read, or trying to catch up on what’s going on with a novel, or what are people saying in this particular corner of the world about health or whatever. So I do try to channel just a broader sense of curiosity and try to think outside of my own taste, which can be really difficult but can be exciting.

What does trying to “think outside of your own taste” mean in practice? Not just reviewing books that you’re comfortable with?

So for example, I ended up reviewing three books about women’s health and more specifically the sort of crisis that’s happening that a lot of people are reporting on and writing about from different angles. And that doctors don’t believe women. Women will come into the doctor, and it doesn’t matter how they present. They can be talking about almost any kind of pain or any kind of issue. They can be emotional or they can be stoic, and they’re not being listened to.

I happened to notice that there were these three very different books that came at this topic from different angles. And that just felt important, you know? And obviously, health and medicine aren’t my specific specialties, but I did want to come at these books and come at this issue the way a common reader might. And to speak to the common reader, and as a common reader, about what is happening, what are these books saying, what is the broader conversation.

Do you feel that when you’re writing about a topic that, let’s say, you have more expertise on, that you don’t want to talk to the reader as another common reader, but you want to talk to them from some area of expertise?

I have no expertise. I have no expertise. Come on, come on.

You know what I mean, though.

In every review I, best-case scenario, want to have done enough work where I do feel like what I have to say is interesting and valuable to people more well-versed in it, as well as making the review seem accessible and friendly enough, and just giving somebody coming to it enough grounding to say, “These are the contours of this discussion.”

I read an interview where you said that you try to read every book that you review two or three times. Is that still possible when you’re reviewing as much as you are now?

Yeah, but I’m learning how to skim. I do try to read it a few times. I do think that the first time you read the book as a critic is the most important, because you’re coming to the book the way that anybody is coming to the book.

Your colleagues at the newspaper who review movies have been talking about and writing about the post–Harvey Weinstein moment in Hollywood and how to evaluate movies through the lens of people like Harvey Weinstein or Kevin Spacey. This discussion seems like it has not really shifted to books yet. You are someone who is interested in literary history, and we can look back through the lives of a lot of the writers we admire. They’re not all George Eliot. How do you think about reading books, particularly fiction, from people who can be grotesque?

Yeah, so you had a great interview with Tony Scott, in which he said something that I think we all feel, but he just put it very perfectly: “The job of the critic is judgment and judgment always has a moral and ethical dimension. Always.”

It feels jejune to come in as a critic and subject the work of art to gossip or to this or to that. But at the same time, when we say that this work of art exists, this character exists, we are making these judgments. … Always implicitly thinking about what this work of art says about how to live and all these things. For me, the kind of criticism that I really do respond to really does fold in the life in a way that I find very interesting and feels like part of the job and responsibility of good criticism.

I think that this idea that some people have that the art is separate from life has always been confusing to me, and I think that it’s the kind of criticism that I keep going back to, does really look at how life informs the art and informs the life. These are books that are being made by people who live with particular material circumstances and are in the bodies that they are and have access to whatever they do, and they have the children they do, and they live in the country and time period. And all of that feels endlessly interesting to me. I don’t feel like thinking about these sorts of things necessarily makes your criticism reductive or makes you not take the work as seriously or actually look at the sentences and listen to the rhythms and think about the imagery. One doesn’t preclude the other I think is what I’m trying to say.

You could have the attitude that the art informs the life and the life informs the art as you said, which seems undeniable, but also still feel that as readers, we should still try to judge things somewhat independently.

Why?

I think that there are two ways of looking at this. One is to say that if you take a writer, Charles Dickens or V.S. Naipaul, who in both cases I think are pretty monstrous people, and I think that by looking at them as monstrous people, you can actually view their work and say it enriches the work to know something about them as people, understand where they’re coming from, and understand how complex they are.

However, I do worry that there’s another thing that operates on my subconscious or even conscious mind, which is that I read an article about Dickens saying that Indians should be fired out of cannons if they resist British rule. And therefore when I read A Tale of Two Cities, I’m just not thinking about the book in the same way. And I don’t know entirely how valuable that latter thing is.

I don’t worry about this for me. Part of this is as a woman, an Indian, a queer, I have a lot of practice at being like, “I want to enjoy your work, and yet you say these monstrous, abhorrent things.” I’ve gotten good at balancing all of that in my brain at the same time. I really don’t like readings or criticisms that reflexively dismisses a writer. But a lot of the criticism that’s really interesting to me—and not even criticism in books, but for example, certain kinds of criticism that are happening in museums, right? Showing a work of art by an artist that’s saying like, “Can we just give the viewer this information about them and make it their responsibility?” That’s the kind of stuff I like. Readers are smart. Viewers are smart. Everybody’s going to have their own complicated relationship to this sort of stuff.

But then also, this conversation—as you say, it’s been happening a lot around movies, and I know that the art world is having this too—also seems to exist in a vacuum, as if this isn’t something that people do all the time in their private lives. Like we don’t have people that have hurt horribly people that we know, or ourselves, and at the same time respect them but fear them, feel traumatized. This is something that I feel is very part of human experience. And yet it’s getting talked about as if this is something absolutely new, and we don’t have a vocabulary for it.

For a lot of people, they’re engaging with art, and they know a lot about it. They’ve read a piece in the New York Times about it. They’ve seen their favorite movie star on Jimmy Fallon talking about the creation of the movie. They’ve watched a behind-the-scenes documentary or YouTube clips about how something was made.

I think most people who pick up a Jonathan Franzen book have some idea who Jonathan Franzen is. That to me is so interesting to think about—150 years ago when, for a while, George Eliot was writing things, and nobody had any clue who she was, even if she was a she. Engaging with a work like that, I agree with you that there’s a certain richness to engaging with everything about the artist. It does feel like in our culture that we’ve lost something there.

I don’t believe you. I think this still happens. I think it happens to me. I think that when you read something that is so good and so strange and so surprising, who the author is or what you even thought about the author doesn’t matter. And I know this just because this happened to me. Actually, I came very late to Jonathan Franzen. And I read The Corrections. I was blown away. Not that I didn’t have issues with it, but I’d had all of these opinions about Jonathan Franzen, and I’d quite negatively reviewed one of his books. But I hadn’t read this particular book, and I was just shocked at how much I loved it and how all of that did fall away, you know? And I do think that that happens, and I do think that that, for those of us who are readers, and the particular nature of what reading feels like, that kind of burrowing, intimate feeling when you’re in a book. I think it still happens.

How much reading are you able to do that’s not either a book you’re reviewing or something you’re reading as supplementary reading for something you’re reviewing?

I try to do as much as possible. It is difficult because—

That’s not an answer, Parul.

I’m weaseling my way out. I really don’t have that many other interests, Isaac. I didn’t really watch that much TV until I discovered Fleabag last week. I’m late on everything in life. I’m late. I’m so late. I have like a pile of books to read and a toddler to raise.

I came across a quote from you in another old interview, which I was hoping you would follow up on. You were talking about growing up, and you said, “Books were a highly controlled substance in my childhood home.” What exactly does that mean?

I grew up with incredibly strict parents—very strict parents with a very idiosyncratic library. My mother had a terrific, terrific library full of Jean Genet, and Sidney Sheldon, and what else do you need? It was just this place of deviance and craziness, and we were never allowed to go in there. And yes, my sister and I became the most sort of frenetic little book thieves you can imagine. Books were never spinach in my house. It was never like, “Oh, we’re so happy to see you reading.” It was always like, “No, do your work. Do this. Study, study, study.” My people are partition-era refugees. So they [are] governed by that particular kind of anxiety in all of these things.

So, for me, growing up, it was just glamorous. It was just glamorous, and it was also mine. Until I got my MFA, I wasn’t really interested in studying literature. I wasn’t really interested in hearing anybody else’s opinion about it. It was always this thing that felt nocturnal. It happened at night. It was private. It was stolen. It was just the glamour of it. I still feel like that’s still where, for me, the exciting thinking, the shocking stuff happens, for better or for worse.

The reason I brought it up is because I feel like in your writing, you often try to highlight what is mysterious or secretive or magical about literature, and I was wondering if you think that the secretive nature that books took on in your childhood imagination had some role in that.

Totally, totally. I think that all people who read with a particular kind of obsessiveness that there’s something wrong with them—something has happened to them. That you’re really choosing this, you’re choosing this place to go in this particular way. My family moved around a lot, and we lived in places sometimes where we were not welcome, and I think that there were certain experiences of childhood racism and childhood alienation that books were a safe place. They were a safe place to encounter the world. They were the place to go. They were the place that you would be accepted.

And they were the places to peer in at places and at people that were keeping you out. So it always felt subversive, always. It always felt like it was access to consciousnesses and places that I was no supposed to be going to, and I wasn’t supposed to have, and that always felt really, really exciting.

Safe and subversive is a pretty cool combination.

I mean, what else? What else is there?

What does your family think of your reviews now?

I don’t know.

And the fact you made a career of it?

[Laughs.] I don’t know. I think that they are moved in the sense that my grandmothers were married as teenagers, right? I think one of my grandmothers is actually illiterate and taught herself to read later. So I think that the fact that I have a life of the mind in this particular way, or can, is very moving to them. More than that, I don’t know. I don’t know if there is anything more than that. I think that the sheer historical fact that you can have in one generation this kind of development or this kind of shift feels shocking and great.