William Deresiewicz is the 2012 recipient of the Nona A. Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, awarded by the National Book Critics Circle. This address was delivered at the NBCC Awards Ceremony on February 28, 2013, in New York City.

I just learned from Pico Iyer’s piece in Harper’s Magazine that when P.G. Wodehouse was asked to give a speech upon accepting an honorary degree at Oxford, he got up, said “Thank you,” and sat back down. How I envy the prerogatives of genius. But that is really all I want to say: thank you. Thank you to the board for giving me this honor. Criticism is a solitary occupation, even more than other forms of writing, which presume some kind of contact with the world at least by way of gathering material. But a critic needs only a room and a book—a very intimate and self-enclosed encounter. And while criticism is among the ways that writers know they’ve reached an audience, critics themselves don’t get a lot feedback—or, at least, not this critic. An editor’s appreciation is often the only response that I’ll get to a piece, which otherwise seems to be deposited into a void. So I take this award as proof, if nothing else, that someone’s out there reading.

Thank you also to the editors who have provided me with space and opportunity over the years: Caroline Herron at The New York Times Book Review; Adam Shatz, who brought me on to The Nation; the gracious John Palattella, my editor there now; the formidable Leon Wieseltier at The New Republic; Albert Mobilio at Bookforum; and Ann Hulbert, with whom I worked for all too brief a time at Slate. And thanks especially to Gregg Barrios, because of whose extraordinary generosity the Balakian Citation now carries a thousand-dollar cash prize. I’m a freelancer, so I’ll expect the check in three to six months. Actually, I’m kidding—the organization was kind enough to send it in advance.

But thanks, I know, are not enough. Our tradition here decrees that I’m to say a few words about the nature or purpose of criticism—an exercise, whether conducted in person or in print, that tends to default to defense or justification. So much so that we are apt to take the turn for granted—though if you think about it, that is hardly what we see on similar occasions. People at the Oscars do not feel the need to defend the validity of movies, or at the Hall of Fame, of baseball. 

Let’s face it: criticism has an insecurity complex, if not an inferiority complex. The enmity of artists toward our species is proverbial and, no doubt, primordial (present company excluded, of course). Think of the passage in Waiting for Godot where Vladimir and Estragon decide to pass the time by hurling abuse at each other. “Moron!” “Vermin!” “Sewer-rat!” “Cretin!” Then Estragon, “with finality”: “Crritic!” (Vladimir “wilts, vanquished, and turns away.”) “What a reviewer says may be inconsequential,” Stravinsky once remarked. “What I protest is his right to say it.” It seems to me that critics make up one of those marginal castes, within the literary community, that one often reads about in traditional societies: necessary but despised, like the tanners of hides or the handlers of corpses.

What purpose, then, can we claim to serve? It has to do, I think, with the nature of the knowledge we call art. It isn’t like science. An equation is true whether there is someone there to think it or not, but a work of art has meaning only insofar as we inhabit it or animate it or reanimate it, only insofar as it becomes a part of our experience, a piece of life itself. Its purpose is not to describe objectivity, but to create subjectivity. “You cannot point to the poem,” F.R. Leavis said; “it is ‘there’ only in the re-creative response of individual minds.” But, he added, “it is something in which minds can meet.” We may read by ourselves, but we do not read alone. Leavis said the form of literary judgment is not “This is so,” but “This is so, isn’t it?”, a statement constituted by the expectation of response. And the characteristic form of that response, he said, is “Yes, but—.” We read in dialogue with one another.

That’s what we mean when we say that culture is a conversation: not because it involves that kind of interchange, but because it depends on it; it is constituted by it. It exists in the space between us. And so a critic can be understood as someone who enacts that conversation in public, who seeds it, who gets it started or keeps it going. As the great dance critic Arlene Croce said (though I think she was already quoting someone else), the job of a critic is to have not correct opinions but interesting ones. A critic is someone who helps to link our individual privacies. If art gives voice to our experience of life, criticism gives voice to our experience of art.

And this occurs not only in time but through time. I got a little extra dose of pleasure, when I was notified of this award, from seeing that one of the finalists, Abby Deutsch, was a student whom I knew as a professor. Maria Richardson, who interviewed me for the series that was put together in advance of these awards, and who is currently an MFA candidate at the New School, is also a former student. I’m old enough by now to recognize not just that I am only a link in a very long chain, but that I am no longer even the most recent link. Very little of what we write will be remembered in a few years, and in a hundred years, almost nothing. But we keep the conversation going. A wave can travel across the ocean, even though the drops that propagate it hardly move. We pass the signal along, so that it makes it to the future. And that seems reason enough for what we do. Thank you.

William Deresiewicz is a Nation contributing writer.

William Deresiewicz in The Nation

Beattitudes” | December 12, 2011

Faulty Towers” | May 23, 2011

The Whole Human Mess” | December 13, 2010

Aracataca and Sucre” | December 21, 2009

Adaptation” | June 8, 2009

How Wood Works” | December 8, 2008

Foes” | February 25, 2008