As a part of the 200th anniversary of the Yale Review, students, writers and members of the Yale community gathered to discuss a question central to the Review’s two-century history: Why do we need public criticism?
Editor of the Yale Review Meghan O’Rourke moderated a discussion which included New York Times book critic Parul Sehgal and New Yorker poetry critic Dan Chiasson. Roughly 60 attendees packed the Branford common room to listen to Sehgal and Chiasson discuss changes within the discipline of criticism in the digital age, challenges within the profession and anecdotes from their careers. The event was sponsored by the Poynter Fellowship, a program that allows the Yale community to learn from media professionals.
Remarking that “reading is the closest shadowing we can do of another consciousness,” O’Rourke stated that the discussion would attempt to answer the “broad question” of what criticism is and what it does, in an endeavor to “defend the art of criticism.”
O’Rourke opened the event with remarks about the Yale Review, mentioning that the talk was the kickoff to the Yale Review 200th Anniversary Festival, a three-day event consisting of a variety of master classes, moderated talks and panels. She spoke at length about the history of the Yale Review, from its origins as a theology and economics publication to its current iteration as a “preeminent journal of literature and ideas.”
She mentioned that the Review was in the process of transition, adding weekly online content as well as podcasts to what was traditionally a quarterly magazine.
Sehgal and Chiasson began the event with background information regarding their beginnings in criticism as well as their day-to-day roles as critics. Chiasson cited his beginnings as a poet, saying that he had entered the discipline of criticism “through a side door.” While the two critics had never met in person prior to the event, they each noticed several commonalities in their approaches. They also said that they had interacted with each other several times prior to the event on Twitter — a nod to the field’s changing landscape.
Both critics noted the presence of technology as a catalyst of change for the discipline. Sehgal identified the “volume, immediacy and response” embodied by social media as a mechanism for mass audiences to interact with literary works. However, Sehgal noted, this does not diminish the importance of preeminent publications, stating that the “weight of these institutions had a new authority in retaining their role as tastemakers.”
Chiasson concurred, noting that there are “always prompts and stimuli coming in online,” referencing readers’ engagement with literary work on platforms such as Twitter.
Sehgal reflected on the significance of her role as a critic, noting that she was at first drawn to the profession as she viewed it as a “form of higher gossip,” a remark that drew laughter from the audience. She likened the responsibilities of a critic to that of an antenna, contending that when she is surrounded by other opinions, she feels a marked responsibility to center her own thoughts.
“Am I telling the truth that I saw?” she questioned. “Hopefully, readers of my pieces feel me grappling with the way to shape an argument.”
The audience also learned the range of criteria that inform the books the critics select to review. Chiasson aimed to review books by a diverse array of authors, both in terms of race, gender and sexual identities, as well as literary experience, in order to create a fuller representation of the present-day literary landscape.
The critics also shared with the audience their inventive techniques for maintaining the “freshness” of their writing and avoiding cliches and overuse. Chiasson mentioned that he had a list of original metaphors, one of which included comparing an object to the “scratchiness of a cat’s tongue.” Sehgal mentioned that reading other forms of criticism, such as food and fashion criticism, elevated her own writing.
Mery Concepcion ’20, a prospective critic, noted that she enjoyed hearing about the specific challenges faced by the critics and the intricacies of their daily jobs.
“It was a really great conversation in terms of hearing from people who are working critics,” she said, adding that she gained insight into what the “daily job” of a writer would entail, as opposed to a student’s expectations for the job.
The Yale Review was founded in 1819.
Neha Middela | firstname.lastname@example.org