Guest Post: Balakian Award Winner Sam Anderson


I became a book critic so I wouldn’t have to talk to anybody-especially not large crowds of intimidatingly literate people-so I’m mildly terrified right now. My wife is a psychologist, and keeps telling me to reframe my anxiety as excitement. I’m horrifically, horrifically excited.

Thank you, Celia, for a really undeservedly lovely introduction. And thank you to the NBCC. This award is especially satisfying because the list of finalists is basically a list of my favorite critics: Walter Kirn, whose name always gives me a little thrill when I see it in the table of contents of the Times Book Review; Adam Kirsch at the NY Sun, who manages to be publicly wise at a rate that I think reflects very poorly on myself; Ron Charles, now at the Washington Post, who was once a very gentle and encouraging editor at the Christian Science Monitor when I was a freelancer; and Brooke Allen, whose most absurd dreams about politics are probably more coherent and learned than my actual voting decisions. These are writers whose work I google when I’m feeling uninspired or lazy, or if I just want to know what I should have said about a book instead of what I actually said. I’m not sure what kind of clerical error has put me up here instead of one of them-but I’m certainly honored to be included with such a talented group.

I think, traditionally, the Balakian winner gives a little mini-sermon about the sanctity of book reviewing. So I thought I’d say a few words-particularly at a time when the genre seems to be a little down,  spiritually, and kind of kicked around-about what excites me about writing about books.

To me, book reviewing has never been hack work, or grunt work, or community service for those of us who’ve committed the unpardonable crime of not being novelists, or some kind of sad little way-station on the road to big literary success-I see it as a self-sufficient art. In fact, it’s one of my very favorite literary forms, and the form in which a lot of my favorite writers have done their best work.

Martin Amis (one of my reviewing heroes) made a profound comment once about the special nature of book criticism: he said that art critics, when they review art shows, don’t paint pictures about those shows, film critics don’t review movies by making movies about them, and music critics don’t review concerts by composing symphonies-“but,” he said, “when you review a prose-narrative, then you write a prose-narrative about that prose-narrative.” To me,this is the magic of the genre, and the thing that keeps me excited from essay to essay. In reviewing a book, we respond artfully to a work of art in its own medium. We write words about words-and then, ideally, as the conversation progresses, we write words about words about words about words. So for me book criticism has always been this kind of ground zero of textuality: we take one text and fold it over onto another text to create a kind of third, hybrid, ultra-text. This self-reflexiveness doesn’t make the work (as critics of the critics have said)  secondary, or parasitic-it makes it complex, and fascinating. In fact-not to get too high and mighty here-it reminds me of Aristotle’s description of the mind of God, an apparatus so divinely perfect it can think only of itself:  “its thinking is a thinking on thinking.”

As book critics, our writing is a writing on writing. We respond to an author’s metaphors with counter-metaphors; we critique or praise a story by telling a story about it.  My favorite work is always that which allows itself to imaginatively intermingle with its source-text: it can be imitative, competitive, or collaborative; it can mimic or counteract the tone of the source. It can be subtle or overt. But it will always have this unique, doubled-over,creative quality-and that’s what keeps book criticism vital, and why it will survive.

Writing book criticism for a living is a totally unnatural state of being that requires the support of many people-so let me thank just a couple of them. First, my editors at New York Magazine, who let me get away with far more shenanigans than I ever expected they would, and on whom I plan to uncork even wilder shenanigans in the very near future, until we discover the precise limits of their tolerance. And most importantly Sarah, my wife,  who has subsidized-financially and emotionally-the entirety of my reading and writing since we met 14 years ago in high school math class.

I spend most of my time in a room by myself, scrambling to make deadlines,worrying that I’m reading the wrong things, agonizing over what I finally do write, and fretting that authors will hate me-so to get this kind of macro acknowledgement, from people whose work I respect so much, is an amazing gift. Thank you so much.

Sam Anderson, Book Critic / Contributing Editor,New York Magazine

Photo credit: Miriam Berkley