Critical Mass

Balakian Award Winning Critic Steven G. Kellman Honored in San Antonio


Steven G. Kellman, longtime NBCC member, winner of the 2007 Nona Balakian award for excellence in reviewing, professor of comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio and author of “Redemption,” a biography of Henry Roth, was honored Thursday night in San Antonio with an award for literary excellence as the centerpiece of “Inkstravaganza,” the fundraiser for the grass-roots literary giant Gemini Ink. (He’s pictured here with his poet wife Wendy Barker and Coleen Grissom, Trinity University Professor and Inkstravaganza MC.) Steve Kellman is a gem of a critic—wide ranging, prolific, witty, complex yet focused; his work is a marvel of clarity.  The 2007 NBCC Balakian award committee chair, Celia McGee, noted in her citation,“Texas is lucky to have Steve Kellman….and his practically regular-as-morning-coffee contributions to the Texas Observer and the San Antonio Current….” (More here.) Steve’s remarks below.

Two passages from Mark Twain come to mind.  One is the scene in which Huckleberry Finn attends his own funeral.  At least there is no coffin here.

Elsewhere, Twain writes about a man who is about to be tarred and feathered and ridden out of town on a rail. He tells the assembled crowd: “If it were not for the honor of the thing, I would just as soon walk.”

I would just as soon be jogging.  I thank Coleen Grissom for her inimitable service as toastmaster.  I once had a toastmaster at home, but the bread always came out burnt.

Though Dorothy Parker called gratitude “the meanest and most sniveling attribute in the world,” I am immensely grateful to Jane Ciabattari for making the long journey to Texas from New York. She can tell people back home that she came to San Antonio for the waters, but I value her presence at this event and her generous words about me, though not as much as her continuing leadership on behalf of books, criticism, and a literate culture. Though he was himself a prolific and pugnacious reviewer, H. L. Mencken did not think much of the humble craft of writing about books. “Mere reviewing,” he wrote, “however conscientiously and competently it is done, is plainly a much inferior business. Like writing poetry, it is chiefly a function of intellectual immaturity.”

It should be remembered that Mencken’s first book was a volume of poetry, and that, according to legend, he thought the stuff so wretched that he bought up as many copies as he could to take them out of circulation. (Some poets buy up copies because they consider their own handiwork brilliant). But Mencken’s disparagement of “mere reviewing” is echoed throughout a long tradition of abuse against critics, often by resentful writers, painters, and composers. “Nature fits all her children with something to do,” wrote poet James Russell Lowell. “He who would write and can’t write, can surely review.”

Anyone reviewing the history of Gemini Ink’s Award of Literary Excellence must be humbled to be considered a successor to Wendy Barker, Rosemary Catacalos, Robert Flynn, Sterling Houston, David Liss, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Abraham Verghese. Reviewing the history of Gemini Ink and its absolutely essential array of workshops, readings, reader’s theater, and community outreach programs, I am proud to say that I was present at the creation—beside a platter of pad thai. It was at a Thai restaurant, that Nan Cuba, the brilliant visionary founder and first executive director of this whole enterprise, told David Bowen and me about her plans and declared our lunch the first official meeting of the board. Rose Catacalos is only the second executive director that Gemini Ink has ever had, and her judgment is impeccable, except when she praises me.  “The only way to escape the personal corruption of praise is to go on working,”  said Albert Einstein.

So it is time for me to read from my work, as collected in this unreasonably gorgeous chapbook.—Steven G. Kellman

More about “15 Larks to Be an Owl,” the limited edition chapbook of Steven G. Kellman’s critical wit, designed by the School by the River Press for the Southwest School of Art and Craft and Gemini Ink, here. Hand-made paper, printed on a Vandercook press, it’s the real deal. So’s Kellman. Rare and welcome for a book critic to be so recognized.