Critiquing the critics: Parul Sehgal on 125 years of the New York Times Book Review

April 7, 2019 edition of the New York Times Book Review

“It has often been my experience that rereading a book that was important to me at earlier times in my life is something like lying on the analyst’s couch,” writes Vivian Gornick in the introduction to her book Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-reader. “The narrative I have had by heart for years is suddenly being called into alarming question.”

Rapid social changes over the past five years have called many established narratives into question: from #MeToo to Black Lives Matter, recent protest movements and associated events in the tide of history have had a knock-on effect for literature, interrogating how – or even if – some texts from the past should be read in the present. In the most recent case, Dr. Seuss Enterprises, which administers the publishing estate of the beloved children’s author, announced yesterday that six Dr. Seuss titles would no longer be published due to images that are today considered racist stereotypes. (This was met with predictable furor by the cultural watchdogs at Fox News.)

Last month, Coach House Books published Uncle: Race, Nostalgia, and the Politics of Loyalty by Ryerson University assistant professor Cheryl Thompson. The book examines the history of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “sentimental anti-slavery novel” Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with specific reference to the way the eponymous character’s name has become synonymous with Black figures accused of being race traitors.

It should be obvious that if books are subject to re-evaluation by societies that are temporally and attitudinally removed from their creation, so too is commentary around those books. There are people who take great pleasure in mocking early critics of classical literature who have proven to be on the wrong side of history – all those puzzled 19th-century readers of Moby-Dick who had no idea what to make of the novel, or early 20th-century critics who dismissed Ulysses as an obscene mess. (Though there are doubtless those in 2021 who would agree with that assessment.)

More interesting is the way criticism has evolved along with the times; how certain approaches and theoretical vantages now seem quaint or outdated or, in some cases, even morally flawed.

As part of its 125th anniversary celebration, the New York Times Book Review commissioned Parul Sehgal – one of North America’s smartest and most incisive literary critics – to go through the archives and try to tease out what has changed over the life of the publication.

Not surprisingly, Sehgal found that much of the early writing in the review’s pages is troublesome from a 21st-century perspective, with a good deal of it coming across as pompous and dismissive, especially where women’s writing is concerned.

It was a clubby world put into a panic by the success of “the lit’ry lady,” as a 1907 article termed her. Early issues of the Book Review were lively with alarm. Why Are Women Using Male Pseudonyms? How Dare Women Write From the Point of View of Male Characters? Why Are Women’s Books Selling So Well? “Is Woman Crowding Out Man From the Field of Fiction?”

The suave “we” would not yet accommodate women, or others, and the reviewer acted as sentry, patrolling the pronoun’s borders.

Equally unsurprising, given that the history of American literature is reflective of broader American history, is a frequently dismissive or even insulting treatment of racial minorities, especially Blacks, in the review’s pages:

Where Black writers are concerned, another pattern can be detected. Reviewers might impute cultural importance to the work, but aesthetic significance only rarely. And if aesthetic significance was conferred, it often hinged on one particular quality: authenticity. … That presumption — that the work of the Black writer was always coded autobiography, and only coded autobiography — was so entrenched, it feels startling to see the Black novelist praised purely for technique and inventiveness, to see an artistic lineage located, as in Wright Morris’s review of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which named Ellison as a descendant of Virgil and Dante.

Certainly much has changed in the culture of book reviewing over the NYTBR’s 125-year lifespan, though despite inarguable strides in opening the doors of both publishing and journalism to a broader array of voices, it is still sadly rare to find criticism of the kind Morris engaged in, regardless of the writer’s background or ethnicity.

Seghal’s entire piece is worth reading, but her conclusion is particularly heartening. While she acknowledges a personal sadness at the thought of all the voices underrepresented or silenced by a critical culture that has been historically too insular, condescending, or disdainful of writing that is not white and male, she points out that her experience combing through the archives also reminded her what she values in critical writing:

The critics I first loved spoke with a note of defiant truthfulness; they were impatient with cliché, puffery, and scolds, contemptuous of anxious gatekeeping. I’m not referring to academic critics but regular reviewers, whose only credentials were nerve, wariness and style. V.S. Pritchett, Anatole Broyard, Randall Jarrell, Elizabeth Hardwick, Margo Jefferson.

Good criticism, Seghal concludes, is important. And that is something that doesn’t change.

Critiquing the critics: Parul Sehgal on 125 years of the New York Times Book Review