The writers reflect on the strenuous, theatrical, and brutally confessional craft of contemporary criticism in Document S/S 2019.
This conversation appears in Document No. 14, available for order online now.
Why do we like what we like? The books, movies, photos, and artworks that form our perspective—who puts them in front of us? One answer is the critic, that cipher of taste who places art in its various corridors, then augments, defines, degrades, and ultimately shapes the works that shape us. In times when the public’s eye travels with ever more scope but not necessarily more depth, criticism, the act of choosing—and so much more—becomes more important than ever. It’s for this reason that so many eyes are turning to Parul Sehgal and Teju Cole, two critics—as well as editors, essayists, and artists—challenging not only us but art forms themselves.
At only 37, Sehgal is re-centering literature from her position as literary critic and columnist at The New York Times. (She was hired after the Times’s chief literary critic, Michiko Kakutani, stepped down in 2017). Her choice of subjects and focused, artful prose is giving space to works by marginalized authors, including women and people of color, as well as international identities and cultures historically left out of the canon. As we continue to look to the written word for clarity, hope, and maybe even answers, work by Sehgal—who teaches at Columbia University and won the 2010 Nona Balakian Award from the National Book Critics Circle—has become nothing short of essential reading.
Meanwhile, Cole is directing our gaze from various esteemed perches, be it his role as the first Gore Vidal Professor of the Practice of Creative Writing at Harvard, his job as the photography critic for The New York Times Magazine, as the PEN/Hemingway Award-winning author of Open City, or as an internationally exhibited photographer. Our eyes follow his, even if we’re not aware of it.
From her apartment in Brooklyn, and from his new home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the two friends interrogate each other’s approach to writing, style, and carrying the weight of words. As they tell it, the critic becomes laborer, poet, collector, and pastor. And thanks to them, criticism becomes not only digestible, but helpful; a resource. In a world full of “likes” and hot takes—where Cancel Culture has supplanted debate—their kind of informed critique has become as rare as it is paramount; work that probes deeply and burns slowly.
Parul Sehgal—Hi, Teju. Thank you so much for doing this, man.
Teju Cole—It’s a pleasure.
Parul—A little voice-on-voice. It’s the most intimate thing these days.
Teju—Yeah, like old people on the phone.
Parul—I was actually nervous. I don’t usually feel fear or nervousness. But then I was about to do this very unnatural thing, which is call somebody on my phone who is not a blood relation or someone with whom I’ve spawned another human.
Teju—You said you’re just coming home now?
Parul—Yes. My day was filled with that kind of postpartum feeling I get after having written something big and unwieldy, you know? One of the things I wanted to chat about was, what does writing feel like for you in your body? Do you think about it?
“All of writing feels oddly collaborative. I feel, in a really deep sense, that I’m not just in conversation with the writers that I love, but in league with them—and part of something bigger.”
Teju—Absolutely. There’s a lot of physical tension involved in those stages of putting a piece together because you’re tuned in, you’re tuned up, and you’re high-strung. There are little bits of tension but almost…little bits of fatigue. Today, I’m having a piece edited and that means there are 2,000 words in my head and I’m moving them around like a bunch of lumber. Meanwhile, with a good first draft, or a good second draft, perhaps, there is an electric feeling in the body, too. Don’t you find?
Parul—It’s actually hard to talk about, just because it is so close to other feelings of ecstasy in the body. It reminds me of all kinds of things. I don’t know if you run. I just started running, but not well or frequently enough, so it always feels new and strange.
Teju—I don’t do enough physical exercise.
Parul—Today I decided to go for a run without music. And I think I really felt what it was like to carry my own weight. From leg to leg. I felt it. And I was thinking about that feeling of closing a piece and that certain point of writing where you really feel your mind working like a muscle. You feel the stretch and the cramp and you feel the exhaustion. I was reading a piece about how thinking is metabolically expensive, which is one of the reasons we procrastinate. [Laughs] It’s not that we’re just bad people, it’s that we know, our body knows…
Teju—The body knows this is going to be expensive.
Parul—It’s like the body is saying, ‘Please go be frivolous online. Do anything else. Zone out.’
Teju—You’re spending big right now.
Parul—Spending is exactly the word. But the exhilaration is why we do it, right? Or do you relish something in the difficulty of writing, too?
Teju—No, I don’t. It is the exhilaration of arriving at something ship-shape, that before you made it, was not there.
Teju—And you are making it out of material that is generally available, but this is not Ikea assembly. What you’re making out of it is always something new.
Parul—Maybe the way you do it, Teju. I’ve had my weeks. [Laughs]
Teju—Maybe the way you do it. Because one of the main pleasures I’ve found in reading you is that I get a sense of somebody who has done just that one more draft, and then one more, in order to take out the sentences that might have been expected and then to arrive at the sentences that sing.
Teju—In fact, I’d like to ask you, what helps you in that moment of trying to figure out the difference between a sentence that is satisfied and a sentence that is self-satisfied? When weaker writers are attempting to stick the landing, they leave in the proverbial darlings that go un-killed. Tell me about your honing process.
Parul—I didn’t invent it. I think it’s something that a lot of writers do, which is this ability to split. The self that writes is not the self that edits is not the self that generates. I’m able to split and edit myself as if it’s copy coming in that I’ve never seen and I’m mildly contemptuous of.
“This is the performative aspect of criticism—the performance of thought. We are processing how it is passed through our body, what it has triggered, what it has stirred up in us.”
Parul—Sontag has a taxonomy that every writer is three or four writers: the fool who lets it out, the editor, the critic who brings taste. Some of that applies. But I think it comes from being really in touch with certain writers who are doing it well, the people whose work I drink from. You’re one of them. John Berger is one of them. Roland Barthes is one of them.
Teju—Fellow workers in the vineyards of sentences.
Parul—Yes. All of writing feels oddly collaborative. This is not to say I don’t have a particular set of aesthetic concerns or ambitions. But I do feel, in a really deep sense, that I’m not just in conversation with the writers that I love, but in league with them—and part of something bigger. And something that can be done to language can also be done to thinking and to forms of being.
Teju—But different than if you were a music critic, right? Because the material that you’re examining is the same stuff as the material in which you do your work.
Parul—Oh, yeah. It’s words about words.
Teju—But it’s not only words about words. So, you’re fed by these superlative writers that matter to you. I imagine people like Proust might also be there. And a book you might be reviewing might be very good, but it might not be, say, a threat to dislodge one of your top 20. It also contains something you can put in your pocket and take with you. Even something that can nudge you into something you wanted to say. And you didn’t quite know how to say it.
Parul—Right, this is the performative aspect of criticism—it’s the performance of thought. We are processing how it is passed through our body, what it has triggered, what it has stirred up in us. But then we’re also trying to find a language and a structure, and an order in which to explain what it has done to us. So even if it is something that does not rise to the level of Proust—I mean, what does? There is that line that if you don’t find something interesting you’re not looking hard enough.
Teju—Look harder. Exactly. There’s this idea that in photography that pictures are not good enough. You’re not close enough. How do you bring it out? When it’s being practiced in the exquisite form that you’re doing it, we know that this response is never one-note.
Parul—Well, first of all, that’s incredibly kind, thank you. When you’re writing in a particular space and with a particular word count, I think it feels like the review is a sonnet to me. It feels like it has a form. It feels like when I’m in it—the same way for you when you’re in your column—you have a sense not only of what you want to say, but where you are in time when you’re saying it. You can hear it. You can score it. I keep coming back to the idea of the review and what it has in common with the sonnet in terms of its rigidity, in terms of its playfulness. Especially a newspaper review, which is supposed to serve so many masters. It should speak to people that know something about the topic. It should speak to people who know nothing about the topic.
Teju—That’s right. It should live as a piece of writing and yet it must be informative.
Parul—And it has to do two things now because the news and criticism, especially in newspapers, function in a very interesting way. It is of this moment, but it’s now going into an archive.
Teju—It’s not ephemeral anymore. Somebody could tweet a link to it three years from now.
Parul—There are these masters that have to be served. In terms of the little twist, the great glory of the sonnet is the volta, which is before the end. There’s a little something that takes you into another direction.
Teju—The final couplet.
Parul—Right, there’s always that chance. There’s always that permission or obligation to now comment on what you said.
Teju—The couplet brings it home.
Parul—Criticism can allow you to say ‘yes but’ or ‘yes and.’ You can have it these ways. And I think about the critics that I love—Sontag, Barthes—who contradict themselves constantly, consistently, as an ethic in their work. To say, ‘After I’ve persuaded you in lawyer-ese…now I’m going to stop and recant.’ And that action, to me, in review, always feels like a gift.
Teju—Weaker critics are in a hurry in the first paragraph to get their readers off and say, ‘It’s good, but…’ No, no, no. You say, ‘This is how it’s good.’ And that involves patience, of all things. I also think that a moral skill is involved as well. And what I mean by that is reviewing can be gladiatorial. Some people take entirely too much delight in their power to make or break.
“A side of me still wants to be a pastor. Not a preacher, not to convert, but to console—to bring it to a place that says, ‘I hope I have brought some raw truth there.’ That is what I most wish to reach. ”
Parul—Something I think you actually do so beautifully in your reviews is you give people a chance to look for themselves. You perform that difficult act, which is also the great imperative of criticism: description. It is so much easier to come in, as you say, in gladiatorial form, and to throw in a couple flashy adjectives and a couple of jokes than it is to say, ‘This is the picture that hangs before me.’ Another person who does this really well is your colleague James Wood. He has these huge chunks of quotation that he hangs, almost like specimens.
Teju—What I notice is that you’re a good smuggler. You smuggle large emotions into small form.
Parul—I’ll tell you how it is for me and you tell me how it is for you. I think one of the really lovely things for me about criticism is that it is a wonderful way of playing hide-and-seek with the reader. I like to be seen looking at something, thinking about something, and through my enthusiasm and not through my judgment. But there’s something about manifesting oneself in the space of these kinds of reviews. It feels tolerable. Not even just tolerable, exciting. What’s it like for you?
Teju—We’re supposed to be these critics at these publications and yet it’s idiosyncratic. Neither of us really represents what is thought of as the authoritative voice which reigns in culture. For me, a lot of it has been a wish to be helpful without being instrumental.
Teju—I think there is that side of me that still wants to be a pastor. Not a preacher, not to convert, but to console—to bring it to a place that says, ‘I hope I have brought some raw truth there.’ That is what I most wish to reach. Recently somebody wrote to me and said, ‘I work with incarcerated people and I pass your essays to them as contraband. I come back, and I frequently find them marked up and underlined, and passed to another person.’ And I thought, ‘That’s what they’re supposed to do with reviews.’ As Yiyun Li put it, ‘I write to you from my life.’
Parul—Beautiful. She borrowed that line from Katherine Mansfield’s journal.
Teju—For me, there’s a kind of solace-seeking in my writing when it’s at my most gratifying—that I know its voyager is somebody out there. It’s not about the mass: ‘Oh, everybody’s tweeting and sharing this piece today.’
Parul—I think we have that in common.
Teju—I don’t care for that at all. But it’s the one person who says, ‘Okay, for the duration of this day, this essay’s changed my life. I sense that care went into it.’ The funny thing is, it doesn’t come about automatically. It doesn’t get easier. Every time, you have to show up and hope it works.
Parul—Our mutual friend Kathryn Schulz has a very nice little line about that: She says that for every piece, the thinking is bespoke. You have to invent it for the piece.
Teju—Exactly, exactly. And speaking of bespoke, that leads me to a turn that might be one of our final turns.
Parul—Our volta if you will?
Teju—Our volta, yes. Precisely that. If you’d like to avoid it, I shall.
Parul—No, go on.
Teju—It’s about style. You are a stylish person. You’re stylish in your writing but also in your mode of dress and presentation.
Teju—And yet your readers typically don’t see this. Tell me a little about that. Why do you hide your light from the reader?
Parul—[Laughs] Oh, God, I’m gonna wake up my kid. This is too funny. You’re the devil. You’re not a pastor, you’re a devil. Why am I hiding my light away from the readers?
Teju—Let me slightly rephrase. What is your relationship to those other talents you have, which is to be able to enter a room and make an impression? I don’t want to beat around the bush.
“When it comes to my relationship with my own style, I place such a premium on being able to say who I am and what I want in words that I haven’t left much room for other things to speak for me.”
Parul—I’m somebody who thinks so obsessively about style as punctuation and as spaces and what people can’t write about. And really, when it comes to human beings and their own style, that seems to be a huge place of omission and silence. It’s not that I’m not sensitive to it and I’m not moved by beauty in certain ways. But when it comes to my relationship with my own style, I place such a premium on being able to say who I am and what I want in words that I haven’t left much room for other things to speak for me. So when it comes to self-presentation and style and persona, my own, and sometimes other people’s, there’s a lot of innocence and ignorance.
Teju—And of your own power, because nevertheless the style abides.
Parul—And you, too. Where did you learn how to do that?
Teju—For me, I guess it’s related to art history. But it’s also been linked to doing literature, fiction, and criticism. These critics that you’ve mentioned—they all, actually, are stylists. Yet, this is not a glaze applied to the surface of the prose afterward. It is actually the organic emanation of the clarity of the thinking. I’ve tried to emulate those people in various ways, even though I’m also very interested in dryness. I’ve gotten more interested in trying to have style be part of my physical world, as well. I like to wear my hat.
Parul—You like a scarf.
Teju—I like a scarf. I love to sit at a beautiful table for guests when we have dinner at home. I’m interested in seeing decoration. I’ve learned not to be embarrassed by those things. I’ve always liked fine things and now I really like fine things. Alright, so my last question is, who do you like to look at?
Parul—This is my favorite question. I’m going to give you a couple of categories. I love to look at people sleeping in public in India. You will never see people sleeping so unselfconsciously—outside temples, on the street, in lines for things, on the train. You will never see such a spectacle of open, languorous public sleeping in that way. It’s a little bit sentimental, but my father has one of my favorite faces. I see him, but not very often. But I see little signs, little ways, that he’s aging. I like the power in his face. Who else do I love to look at? Tell me a few people you love to look at
Teju—No, I think I’m going to end with you. So two more from you.
Parul—There’s a certain kind of 14- or 15-year-old girl I love to look at. There’s a feeling—girls feel it very intensely—where you suddenly feel like you’re being watched. And there’s something about that burning, exciting, slightly ashamed, slightly frightened, slightly preening, slightly proud thing that they emanate around 14 or 15 where they’re like, ‘Are you looking? I hope you’re looking. Do I want you to look?’ That thing. Am I projecting it because I felt it so acutely? Probably. But the memory of that kind of complicated hunger-revulsion for this sort of ambient gaze of the public, of others, and of strangers is very interesting to me. I like my dad. I like his face, a lot. I like people sleeping in India, and I like 14-year-old girls on the Q train.
Parul—What’s giving you pleasure these days?
Teju—Thanks for asking. I went to Tufts today for a talk by Sumayya Kassamali at the community center there. That was really lovely. Her work is just so rich. I like my cocktail cart in my new house. I’ve been making Manhattans. I finally got all of the ingredients. Once you get the really good maraschino cherries, you can’t go back to the crap.
Parul—Are you making quality Manhattans? Do I need to come there and do a quality check?
Teju—You actually need to physically show up.
Parul—I think I need to see this. I need to see what we’re working with.