Scott McLemee
Balakian Speech
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Acceptance Speech for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, awarded by the National Book Critics Circle

The New School University, New York City, 4 March 2004

In the ordinary course of things, people do not grow up thinking that they would like to publish book reviews someday. But I did. No doubt I was always a peculiar child, nose so long buried in the Encyclopedia Britannica that the semicolons were transferred through the skin, by osmosis. (My copyeditors are still tweezing them out.) There, in the pages of the Britannica, I got to know Samuel Johnson, William Hazlitt, Thomas Macaulay, Saint-Beuve, and so on. So it seemed only natural to think of reviewing as one of those things the really interesting sort of adult did, off in the happy distance.

This possibly somewhat warped perspective was intensified by an adolescence spent in a very small East Texas town where, each week, following the communal religious celebration known as high school football, the primary form of teenage diversion involved driving up and down the brick-paved main street in your car or truck, over and over, for hours, as if to defeat boredom by challenging it to a duel.

Irving Howe once titled a book A World More Attractive. That was a quotation from Leon Trotsky, who said that, while growing up, artists and writer and thinkers represented for him "a world more attractive." Well, yes. Damn straight! Sitting in the school library, looking in bound volumes of Time and Newsweek that ran from "the turbulent sixties" up to through the anxious narcolepsy of the Carter era all around me, I too was looking for "a world more attractive."

So tonight, as a first gesture of thanks, I want to give a shout-out to the whole forgotten crew of reviewers for those newsmagazines – men and women who were, de facto and also (if memory serves) sometimes literally anonymous. Who filed their pieces, week after week, on new books by Daniel Bell, Robert Lowell, Paul Goodman, Herbert Marcuse, Susan Sontag, Norman O. Brown, Dwight Macdonald, Lionel Trilling….And that’s not counting the merely topical middlebrow books, through which the era sought "an image of its accelerated grimace."

Not to overstate how good any of those pieces were. They were book reporting. The purest hackwork, even, lots of it. But around 1972 – imagine this, just try to imagine it happening now -- Time reviewed Alternating Currents, a collection of essays by Octavio Paz, who was then many years away from winning the Nobel Prize. There were essays on avant garde poetry, on structuralism, on dialectics, and plenty besides. Thanks to that review, I tracked Alternating Currents down through interlibrary loan, and read it until my head hurt (which didn’t take long, I can assure you).

Now, swimming upstream from the shallow pool of a newsmagazine’s book coverage of culture to the works themselves, then on to the sources – which in Paz’s case means Hegel and Marx and Nietzsche and various dangerous poets – all of this is slow. Book reviews do not teach you to think. And so it was necessary to move by degrees, from what Gore Vidal once memorably dubbed "book chat" (i.e., "what’s new about this book? is it any good?") to criticism ("how do we interpret X in this book?") on to what is most suitably called critique, not in casual usage of that term, but something like Kant’s sense. To whit: "what are the conditions of possibility such that X can exist, in this form, such that we can comprehend it?" (You should imagine that whole question as hyphenated – as one long word in German, probably.)

And so I came to breath the bracing ozone of perfect reflexivity. And from that lofty perch, high in the stratospher, the work of the reviewer looks….well, simple. Simple-minded, even. There is a certain way of pronouncing the word "journalist" that enables otherwise terribly callow people in their twenties to treat, say, Edmund Wilson with condescension. Not everyone outgrows this. And if it sounds like I am on the verge of making an accusation here, it is in the context of shame at certain memories.

The tumble from Olympian abstraction into the world of the deadline is long and not very pleasant. In 1987, I published my first book review, on the new paperback of what would be Ralph Ellison’s last collection of essays, indeed the last book published in his lifetime, Going to the Territory. I was 23. I spent two weeks reading and rereading and taking notes – followed several days, and sleepless nights, of trying to organize my thoughts into about a thousand words.

Two memories from this experience remain vivid. The first was how difficult it was (after all that Derrida and whatnot) to write two consecutive sentences of under 35 words each. And let’s not even talk about the parenthetical structures. It was a struggle. It was painful. Almost physically so. The second memory involves going to the newspaper office after it appeared. An editorial assistant pulled out a ruler, measured the review, and wrote me a check for ten bucks. One dollar per column inch. And then I went off and worked on another piece. Such behavior does not seem, in retrospect, entirely rational.

To be honored for this work now -- by others who also do it -- is moving in ways I do know quite how to express. For the past few weeks, with an eye to this evening, I have been trying to practice a bit of reflexive critique -- to work out an account of the "conditions of possibility" of my own activity, but with an eye to the problem of thinking about how it will continue, as a public enterprise, in the future.

Doing so has not been easy, nor particularly encouraging.

The person standing in front of you, this very moment, is conscious that one of his own "conditions of possibility" was reading Octavio Paz -- of being almost blinded by his brilliance, as if from staring into the sun. But in reflecting upon how that moment came to pass, I find, somehow, that it is repeatedly eclipsed by -- strangely enough -- Janet Jackson’s breast.

Not, to be clear, by that shape itself, as such – which, after all, was only in view for a moment – but by a vast cultural and economic mechanism that sustains itself through ceaselessly transforming Janet Jackson’s breast (or whatever) into a cultural icon that the entire society must debate, view in slow motion, subdue through legislation, and so forth.

So let me be (as the saying goes) country simple, just for a minute.

There are only so many hours in a day. Only so many pages in a magazine. Only so much information that the mind can absorb, and find any meaning in it. And so one ubiquitous nipple can, in effect, set the agenda for the entire culture -- through its very ubiquity. I mean, when was the last time you read a book review in a newsmagazine? If you did, it was probably for The Serial Killer’s Low-Carb Cookbook or something.

As people writing about books, we are only incidentally providing consumer guidance, or acting as inadequately paid entertainers. That, too, of course. At least sometimes. But not primarily.

I would like to think our role is ultimately the one that Matthew Arnold defined in 1868 -- that we are among those who have, in his words, "a passion for diffusing, for making prevail, for carrying from one end of society to the other, the best knowledge, the best ideas of their time; who have labored to divest knowledge of all that was harsh, uncouth, difficult, abstract, professional, exclusive; to humanize it, to make it efficient outside the clique of the cultivated and learned…."

So it would be good to believe -- against all evidence to the contrary, in the teeth of the shrinking of the space for reviews, and despite the fact that you can barely get away with using a semicolon, where Arnold, in the bit I just quoted, never flinched at using two in the same sentence.

Let me conclude with a quick and incomplete list of the people it will be impossible ever to repay, I want to thank John Leonard for instruction in the principles of what he calls "the 800 word mind." Thanks also to Alex Star for several years of steady freelance work at Lingua Franca; and to Scott Jaschik and Jenny Ruark, who hired me at The Chronicle of Higher Education. Working there has been an education in itself.

At some point in 1998, after I had been reviewing at Newsday for about a year, Laurie Muchnick figured out that I would almost never say no to an assignment that required reading a 400 page nonfiction book. Peter Terzian now continues the practice, which is how there came to be a gigantic biography of Stalin waiting for me on my desk at home. I have come to think of them both as close friends, rather than as merciless exploiters of the intellectual lumpenproletariat. Other names, faster: Chris Lehmann, Dwight Garner, Peder Zane, Richard Byrne, Eric Banks. Every one of them has given me a deadline, and paid the consequences for that extremity of optimism.

On a much more personal note, I want to pay tribute to Phyllis and Julius Jacobson, founding editors of the socialist journal New Politics, the embodiments of the old and now unhappily lost tradition of working-class intellectualism of the New York left. The fact that sickness and death mean they cannot be here tonight is a source of great pain. And finally, my deepest gratitude to, Rita Tehan, who is, perhaps more than she or anyone else can imagine, my condition of the possible.