Named to the newspaper's daily book review staff after the recent departure of longtime chief critic Michiko Kakutani, Sehgal avoids the pompous critic-speak that marred Kakutani's work. Sehgal knows how to reach the common reader without dumbing down her sentences.
A former editor for The Times' Sunday Book Review, Sehgal has joined Dwight Garner and Jennifer Senior in the book review rotation with occasional contributions from veteran Janet Maslin. None of the writers holds the title of "chief critic."
Kakutani wielded the power of the role with a heavy hand, all too aware of her ability to make or break books and authors. Her writing was weighted down with portentous statements and pretentious language, as if she felt an immense historical responsibility as one of the nation's main cultural arbiters.
Without that pressure, Sehgal's reviews flow naturally. She slowly builds her arguments without Olympian generalizations and overblown words.
Sehgal's arrival has marked a welcome return to prominence for book reviews in the daily paper. After a period of book reviews being buried inside, or not even running, the work of Garner, Senior and Sehgal has been appearing on the front of the arts section.
Perhaps the de-emphasis of book reviews was a result of the summer doldrums in publishing. Lately, the books reviewed have seemed more interesting, if not of much weight. The big fall books will be rushing in soon. I'm looking forward to seeing how Sehgal handles a work heralded as major.
Sehgal's work is not the only upgrade. After a poor start, Senior's work has risen to a higher level lately. While Senior's writing is more cumbersome than Sehgal's, Senior shows critical insight, using a certain passage to indicate a book's strengths or weaknesses.
Garner achieves a characteristic tone in his writing, and seems back on his A game after a slight slump. A few months ago, the newspaper announced that Garner would be writing a weekly column on forgotten books from the past that deserved renewed interest. After two or three of these pieces, the column has disappeared, perhaps one of those Times experiments that didn't pan out. Without the column's burden, Garner's reviews have regained their signature felicity.
With the Times' daily book reviews headed toward a sunny new area, the Times needs a revamp of its Sunday Book Review, which has declined. The Wall Street Journal's weekend book review section displays more authoritative writing and creative imagination.