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Parul Sehgal (C) Heather Sten

Parul Sehgal, currently a staff writer at the New Yorker and formerly a senior editor and columnist at the New York Times Book Review, is an American literary critic known for her perspicacious thinking and lyrical turns of phrase. Her book reviews and author profiles are grounded in history and context yet animated by a perspective that feels deeply alive to the present. Stylistically, Sehgal’s writing rarely reads as argument. Her observations – whether she’s close-reading a primary text or commenting upon authorly or thematic concerns – are too deft to require the clunky armour of debate. Sehgal’s sedulous approach in turn inspires nuanced reflection by the reader, where one feels invited into a dynamic conversation or seminar, exposed to ideas that will continue to germinate weeks later. When Sehgal sat down with Esmé Hogeveen over Zoom, she was generous, unpretentious, and extremely relaxed when an earthquake began shaking her home office in Brooklyn. In the wake of this thankfully minor disaster, Sehgal and Hogeveen carried on, somewhat surreally, discussing embodied encounters with text.

Interview by Esmé Hogeveen
Portrait by Heather Sten

ESMÉ HOGEVEEN Do you differentiate at all between reading for work and for pleasure? 

PARUL SEHGAL I used to have a rigid rule that for every new book I read, I had to reread a book afterwards, because that’s how you sink into a text and begin accessing your own larger questions. But then, as happens naturally, plans fall apart and reading becomes a process of scrambling that intermixes with life, which also feels correct. Your question reminds me of a conversation I had a few weeks ago with my friend Teju Cole. Teju asked, “How do we keep a certain kind of difficulty and openness and richness in the pieces that we write – otherwise, aren’t we compelled to write pieces that are smooth as capital?” I’m still thinking about Teju’s question, about the task of creating pieces that live in magazines, reach people, and do their work – by which I mean responsibly attend to the book that we’re reviewing or the writer that we’re writing about – but that still have some kind of private or personal life. Something in the piece that is just for you, like a secret jewel sewn into the garment that only you know is there. That may be a convoluted way to answer your question, but reading and writing invariably become continuous with life. Sometimes it’s a lovely feeling to reread pieces that seem to be doing one thing, but in which I can see a little bit of my life in the stitching.

EH Does contributing to canonical and canonmaking publications – such as the New York Times and the New Yorker, which may be consulted 10, 20, or 50 years hence – inform your approach to reviewing? 

PS It enters my thinking in two ways. One is that it can be seen as a great gift to enlarge or stretch the notion of the canon. If you’re able to publish in places that have had a narrow or exclusionary sense of the canon, and especially if you have the freedom to select particular books or writers, you can make interventions. Jean Rhys said this wonderful thing about writers being little tributaries that fill a large ocean, and that’s how I think about it. Even though criticism is something that you sit alone at your desk to do, the overall endeavor does feel collaborative. I’m doing it alongside the critics I love, living and dead, and alongside my students and everybody else who contributes to the magazine or newspaper that I’m writing for. Thinking about how a book rubs against our minds and culture always feels collaborative. In the most practical sense, that’s how it feels in my mind and body when I’m writing.


In a certain way, research can become its own fabulous procrastination


EH It’s funny you mention the body because my next question is about whether embodiment is an interesting or relevant metric for you when reading? 

PS Ian Penman, a critic I love, says you need to have a carnal relationship with language. Of course, reading feels very tactile. I may read in the bath or on the subway, and my children’s doodles decorate some of the pages. The book becomes part of my life and that’s just the physical object – the ideas also loosen and stain everything. Sometimes the embodied elements are not comfortable, but it still feels very necessary.

EH Do you want an embodied relationship to the text? Is experiencing an embodied response the sign of a good book? 

PS No, because I think that part of doing this kind of work, by which I mean encountering a book, is –

EH Did I freeze? Did you freeze?

PS The electricity was cut, but I think we’re okay. I got a text message that this might happen.

EH No worries. When you froze, I thought you were really thinking. I was like, “Wow, I can’t wait to hear what you say!” 

PS To go back to your question, I think that feeling is something we do naturally, and it’s something that I’ve tried to do consciously. Wait, hold on for a second. There’s something happening.

EH Is everything okay? Is there an earthquake?

PS Feels like it, doesn’t it? This is dramatic. The power going out, the shaking! Keep it all in. It’s a great answer to your question. Does one choose to have an embodied experience? No, it happens to us! I use the word “ajar” a lot, because you have to leave space for the book to announce itself and its own criteria, and then have its own effects. Ideally, I think reading involves staying alert and then being rewarded with new criteria, ways of thinking and modes of embodiment. Books act on you. They take time. Every now and again, as you’re reading you can feel yourself being moved and changed. You take the dog out and suddenly stop in your tracks, like, “Oh my God, now I get what that scene was doing.”

EH As a critic, when does the moment of assessment happen? Is it throughout the reading process or is it in hindsight, when you go outside with the dog and have that bit of distance? 

PS We all have responses and impressions as we’re reading. I can literally be in the margins quarrelling with or admiring a text, but the real thinking happens when one starts to write. Writing is an instrument of thinking and the action of writing, at least that first draft, is where assessment happens for me. I grew up loving critics like John Leonard, who kept some of that feeling of dramatic discovery in their reviews. There’s something about the act of writing a review that produces clearer thought. The formality and the enforced calm allow me to think in ways that could otherwise feel scattershot or narrowly banded by my own tastes or biases.

EH That’s very relatable, though I’ve heard of people who compose full sentences or paragraphs in their heads for whom writing becomes about transcribing pre-edited thoughts.  

PS I’m endlessly envious. 

EH That method seems stressful, though, because isn’t it nice to take a walk and not feel obliged to think in perfect syntax? Point form feels important sometimes.

PS Susan Sontag used to always nag herself, “I must learn to think in sentences.” For a while, I used to feel the same, that we have to perfect our own thinking even by ourselves, but then you miss all the strange pangs and hiccups and impressions that you don’t have readymade language for. Some feelings may be resistant to certain kinds of language or reveal that certain language doesn’t exist yet. There’s a kind of method to this madness.

EH Speaking of methodology, what is your relationship to research? 

PS I feel very ethically bound to, as Robert Caro said, “turn every page.” The aim is always to try to understand everything I can, but it does become a time-management issue. In a certain way, research can become its own fabulous procrastination and in some cases you cannot possibly read everything and feel absolutely bulletproof before you write. I think an interesting thing about reviewer journalism is that some of the research is concealed. In a few of my recent pieces, like “What We Learn from the Lives of Critics,” [in December 2023’s New Yorker], I was able to share that I dug into about 82 books for a piece that was only about 2,500 words. Not to present a kind of brocade, as in this is everything I know, but to share a bit about how the piece got made. It’s a kind of thinking that involves rapidly metabolising. But to answer your question more concisely, I research as much as possible and then I run out of time. As review journals, magazines, and sections are drying up, it feels like there’s more pressure to put your arms around as much as you can of the writer’s work and to consider what their reception means or has meant. There was a time when a book could count on 100 reviews. One writes a different review in the context of that kind of critical reception as opposed to writing when there may be only one, three, or five reviews. The context informs my sense of obligation to the reader and the writer. To me, research isn’t about having an intellectual armature for approaching the topic. Sometimes it’s a way of referencing or revealing how a writer or a topic has been misunderstood. Review the book, yes, but let’s actually talk about what this writer or subject has represented or how they’ve been previously understood.

EH In your recent New Yorker Radio Hour interview with Sheila Heti, you called her “ruthlessly contemporary, by which I mean she’s not interested in writing a novel as a nostalgic exercise. She’s constantly trying to figure out new places fiction can go, new ways that we’re using language, new ways that our minds are evolving.” Is surprise – a phenomenon potentially related to newness – something that you value as a reader? 

PS Oh gosh, yes. I think that that’s what one reads for, right? One wants so badly for every book to succeed, but what does it mean for a book to succeed? On some level, I think it can mean producing a feeling of satisfaction that I know and love, but more often than that, it’s that sense of shock and surprise. I think surprise has remained very consistent in my sense of what great writing is. When you see somebody work with the material of language, of ideas, and they do something in a way you haven’t encountered before, it’s very exciting. It’s wonderful to talk about Sheila Heti in this context, because she’s always playing with notions of beauty and ugliness and what it means to be temporary and to look.

EH In “What We Learn from the Lives of Critics”, you described the critic’s life as “ruderal”. For you, what are the most glorious and challenging aspects of a ruderal life? 

PS One thing that I noticed while reading critics’ memoirs was how shy many of them are when it comes to writing about themselves. Oftentimes instead of describing the self, they’ll reference their affinities. They’ll say, I loved this and then I discovered that. I’m thinking specifically about Margo Jefferson’s terrific book, Constructing a Nervous System (2022). There’s something very lovely, and I think very correct, about understanding the self as made up of affinities. In some ways, I think the self is endlessly made up of others and what we’ve seen and cared about and tried to understand. The critic can see this without anxiety and without necessarily feeling boxed in. When I think about people who’ve done this work for 40 or 50 years, and how they can conceive of themselves and their own work when it’s time to do quote, unquote, their own work, I’m incredibly moved. ◉