Last week, I was given an astonishing piece of news: I (and one other, mysterious critic) had been chosen for the first set of Roger Shattuck Awards for Criticism. So I canceled dates, drafted a speech, bought a new dress, and took a train down to The Center for Fiction in New York City. Yesterday I received the award near the end of Center’s Conference on Criticism, and found out that the other, mysterious critic was none other than Adam Kirsch.
What follows is the acceptance speech I gave that afternoon.
“Thank you. It is a tremendous honor for me to receive this award from the Shattuck family and from Center for Fiction. It moves me to think that a organization devoted to fiction can value what I try to do.
I’d to begin by thanking a few people who helped to bring me here today. Heidi Julavits at The Believer took a chance on me in 2003, and let me write a 10,000 word essay on Yukio Mishima, at a time when the longest piece I’d ever written ran about 1,800 words. Ted Genoways and Kevin Morrissey at The Virginia Quarterly Review gave me an assignment to write about Roberto Bolaño and didn’t complain when I turned in a strange, two-headed beast of reporting and straight criticism that looked very little like the article I’d first proposed. John Palattella at The Nation shared my enthusiasm for two-headed beasts, and allowed me to try out more and more complex versions of them while also giving me the privilege of writing about Spanish-language books before they’d ever been translated into English. And, finally, my husband, John Beckman. A novelist and scholar in his own right, he has encouraged and supported me in those unhappy nights when my own confidence has failed, he has cooked me countless dinners when I’ve been on deadline, and he has given me that precious gift: a loving marriage.
I see a few familiar faces in this room, but most of you, I suspect, know very little about me. So I think it’s only polite to tell you a bit about the person who is receiving this award. My parents moved to this country from Chile in 1974 — not because of the military coup that took place in Chile the year before, but because of my father’s ambition. A practicing doctor in Chile, he traveled to Cambridge, Massachusetts, on a fellowship to improve his surgical skills. I was born a few months after he arrived with my mother and older sister. And, thus, I became the only person in my family whose first words were spoken in English, an experience that has given me an instinctive understanding of the power of words.
Like many immigrant families, mine moved around a lot. By the time I graduated from high school, I’d lived in 6 different cities and gone to 7 different schools. Maybe this is why, ever since I learned to read, I’ve mostly had my head in a book. For many of my formative years, books served me as both magnifying glass and safety blanket. They were my most reliable friends. I could pack them in a box and take wherever we went next. I could bury my head in them every time I needed to sit down in a new school, in a new cafeteria sounded by faces that were curious, hostile, or just indifferent.
More importantly, books became my way of examining the world. And I wonder if this isn’t an experience that all of us in this room share. Novelists, critics, devoted readers – how many of us have first really learned about love, or war, or grief in the pages of a magnificent book? And how many of us, when confronted with some troubling puzzle – like the psychology of suicide bombers or the persistence of poverty amid wealth or the systematic killing of women in a town in northern Mexico – don’t turn first to the bookshelf for our answers? William Gass once wrote that the writer is a person who “choos[es] to relate to the world through words” – and this is as true of critics and editors as it is of novelists.
Roger Shattuck himself was a man who was not interested just in French literature or Marcel Proust. In his essay, “How to Read a Book,” he describes three kinds of reading. “We read,” he wrote, “for basic comprehension of words and sentences. We read for literary response to the parts and the whole of a work. And we read for the relations of the work to other works and to life itself.” All three of these kinds of reading, I would venture, correspond to different functions of the critic, and Shattuck’s excellence lay in his ability to deftly exercise all three: to make the complicated intelligible, to heighten appreciation of aesthetic engineering, and to illuminate the thoughts about Art and the World that form the beating heart of every great work of fiction.
I worry sometimes that so much writing about books today seems to dispense entirely with these three functions. We live in the Age of Opinion, but not enough thought is given to the process by which opinions are formed. One could give a whole lecture on this topic, but it’s late in the day, so I will offer just this one thought:
I believe that all good criticism must begin with a serious attempt at understanding. A critic must endeavor to answer the question “What is this author trying to do?” before she moves to any form of judgment. Understanding will always be imperfect, of course; and it’s not the same as approval. We can all understand a book and loathe it. But without that first step, criticism slides into egoism – and that is the most vulgar corruption of our art.
In recent years, my own attempts at understanding have grown to encompass not just individual authors and particular books, but the post-dictatorship world of Latin America. I can’t help noticing that almost all the great writers, and almost all the great filmmakers, in Latin America today grew up under authoritarian regimes. They grew up, that is, amid deception and repression and torture, even if they themselves were spared the most direct experiences of these political vices. Many of their works grapple explicitly, if not always consistently, with this brutal legacy – it’s no coincidence, I think, that so many of them love detectives.
And why should the rest of the world care? I’d like to offer two reasons. First, because from these dirty wars have sprung another stretch of banquet years. Not since the 1970s have we seen such a profusion of exceptional works by Latin American novelists. Second, because repression and violence have not gone away; maybe they will never go away. And in these books lie clues about how people get through such dark eras to rebuild themselves and civil society again.