Book reviews are among those things people who write books despise but find it difficult to live without. Edmund Wilson, in his essay “The Literary Worker’s Polonius,” noted: “For an author, the reading of his reviews, whether favorable or unfavorable, is one of the most disappointing experiences in life.” Yet in Upstate, a collection of journal entries from his last years, Wilson remarked that “getting older, for a writer, did not necessarily give you self-confidence . . . . I sometimes got up at four o’clock in the morning to read old reviews of my books.” The worst of writing, as more than one writer has written, is that one depends so much on the opinions of others.
Allow me to take up Wilson’s first point, about reviews being one of the most disappointing experiences of an author’s life, by way of personal example. One day, upon returning home from a business lunch, I found an enticing package waiting. It was from Jonathan Cape, Ltd., the English publisher of a book I had recently written; the package contained all the English reviews of my book. There must have been twenty of them. Some were from the English weeklies, some from the London, some from the provincial press. I no longer have copies of these reviews, but many, I seem to recall, were written by people named Ian or Jeremy; the one from the Manchester Guardian, I do recall, was written by someone with the lilting name of Monica Furlong.
Stendhal once said that to write a book was to risk standing up to be shot in public.
Well, thought I, here’s a splendid little snack for the ego; some twenty reviews of a book of mine, and written by men and women who, so far as I knew, brought no parti pris to their comments. So, like a fat gourmand who had travelled far for his meal, I sat down and began to plow into these reviews. “Let down” does not begin to describe my feelings as I read my way through the first six or seven of them. Some praised my book, some attacked it. But, in praise or in attack, there was a dreary sameness to the reviews that left me a little depressed. Reading the remaining thirteen or fourteen reviews suddenly seemed in the nature of a chore. They were so low-grade; they had no intellectual precision, no originality of thought or even of phrasing. And whether the reviewers liked my book or hated it they failed to convince me of anything, because they were merely tossing off opinions, and the thing about opinions is that, except for those that are meant to be scandalous, one really is as good as another. “Epstein is very sensitive in his treatment of women,” one reviewer might write, only to be followed by another: “Epstein is quite insensitive to the condition of women.” “Epstein is not your typical modern intellectual.” “Your typical modern intellectual, Epstein . . .” “Wisely, Epstein does not crowd his pages with statistical matter.” “His case would have been much more persuasive had Epstein provided more statistical evidence.” And so it went. What, finally, did it all prove? Nothing more than that, for reasons best known to themselves, Ian thought well of my book and Jeremy didn’t.
I have never kept count, but my guess is that I have had roughly three hundred reviews bestowed on books I have written. From these three hundred or so reviews I have learned nothing, either about my books or about my quality as a writer. Of all these reviews, one pleased me, and for the following reasons: it understood the intention of my book exactly, it was elegantly phrased, and it was written by a writer whose work I myself admired and whose views I could not predict. For the rest, reviews of my books have been mostly muddle, politics by other means, and unintended comedy. I have seen my books used to work out personal problems, even scores, release resentments. Stendhal once said that to write a book was to risk standing up to be shot in public. But he never mentioned the embarrassing places where you might be hit.
Worst of all can be the praising reviews. To have your book praised for things you yourself despise, virtues you have no wish to claim, ideas that are as far as possible from your own—all this can induce real discomfort, like a letter citing you for strength of character from, say, Spiro Agnew or Ted Kennedy. Sometimes the praise, because of its ineptitude, only makes you all the more dubious. “Personally insightful,” a review from Newsweek called one of my books: “Linguistically dopeful,” I reply. “Joseph Epstein is an excellent companion on a thinking trip,” someone in The New York Times Book Review noted of the same book, making me wonder what an unthinking trip might be. In the Washington Post I once had my prose compared to a fine Chinese meal. What, I wondered, could this mean? An hour after reading me you’re looking for something else to read?
Of course the best reviews are not reviews at all but the carefully considered criticisms.
But the praising review that sticks in my mind—and in my craw—is that of a book of my essays that began by stating that the essay was a splendid and endlessly flexible form. Among its practitioners, the reviewer claimed, have been Montaigne and Pascal, Hazlitt and Lamb, Camus and Orwell, and, yes, in our own time, the brilliant John Leonard. Joseph Epstein as an essayist, the reviewer continued, is of their company. Now of all contemporary writers I disesteem John Leonard easily heads the list. I do not want to be of his company. Indeed, at the very mention of the name John Leonard it seemed that Montaigne threw his manteau across his shoulders and left the room, followed by Pascal delicately lifting the skirts of his vestments; Hazlitt said he had a previous appointment at the fives courts, Lamb muttered something about his sister not being well, Orwell stubbed out his cigarette, Camus buckled the belt on his trenchcoat, and they were all gone, and so was any sense of pleasure I might have taken in the praise the rest of this review lavished on my book.
Being frequently reviewed might seem to some people to fall in the category of what is known as happy problems. To be ignorantly reviewed is, doubtless, better than being ignored altogether. Many a writer of lofty reputation has found neglect to be the last circle in literary hell. “The Common Reader came out 8 days ago and so far not a single review has appeared,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary for May 1, 1925, “and nobody has written to me or spoken to me about it, or in any way acknowledged the fact of its existence; save Maynard, Lydia, and Duncan. Clive is conspicuously dumb; Mortimer has flu and can’t review it; Nancy saw him reading it, but reported no opinion; all signs which point to a dull chill depressing reception; and complete failure.”
Some writers claim not to be in the least affected by bad or stupid reviews. Arnold Bennett said he never read his reviews—he only measured them. Not so John O’Hara. O’Hara cut his profitable connection with The New Yorker when a mean review of one of his books by Brendan Gill appeared in its pages. O’Hara arranged to have his books published on Thanksgiving Day because he knew that that was a day on which Orville Prescott did not publish reviews in The New York Times. And it was always a point of pride to him, who had been attacked by so many writers in the intellectual quarterlies, to have had Lionel Trilling write admiringly about him.
I like to think myself above such petty passions. Unfortunately, I am not, and my guess is that few writers are, at any rate completely. In an otherwise fast fading memory, I seem to retain the names of most of the men and women who have reviewed my books roughly. Upon my reading a rough review, my first impulse is to write a sulphuric little note to the reviewer, reviewing his review: “Mon cher M. le Twerp, Sorry you did not find my book to your taste, if taste be the correct word to apply to views as coarse as those you displayed in your review. Still, I wonder if, in your crude fury, you didn’t forget something—such as telling your readers what my book was about. But then I suppose, even in the hands of a real craftsman like yourself, a book review cannot be expected to do everything.” I soon calm down and decide to save the postage. At such times it helps to recall Mencken’s dictum: it is not injustice but justice that hurts.
Of course the best reviews are not reviews at all but the carefully considered criticisms and, one hopes, appreciations of those men and women whose literary intelligence one truly respects—one’s peers, in the old and fine sense of the word. After that, the best criticism often comes through the mails, in letters from strangers who are not themselves writers but who read books in the passionate, heartfelt way of people who yearn to learn and are not weighed down by prepackaged opinions. You can sometimes learn a thing or two from these letters. One woman wrote to me to say, of a collection of familiar essays I had published, that they may have been familiar but they weren’t very personal, which seems to me a subtle and useful criticism.
Misjudging a novel is of no less consequence than, say, misjudging a friendship.
Yet the reviews that can control a book’s fate are those that appear in print. And book reviews are today more important than ever before. Under the current dispensation, a trade book has a bookstore shelf life of roughly ninety days. As Sybille Bedford not long ago put it, publishing nowadays is all serve and volley, and an author has to get to net quickly. Fifteen years ago a book might have remained in a bookstore for eighteen months or two years; even an ignorantly reviewed good book had a chance to find its readership by word of mouth. No longer. Word of mouth does not travel as fast as word of computer. A few well-placed stupid reviews can go a long way toward killing an excellent book, even causing its early banishment from bookstores, preventing it from reincarnation in a paperback edition, snuffing out its existence—and its author’s hopes—quickly and effectively.
The books of already well-known and commercially successful writers are less vulnerable to the vagaries of reviewing than are those of young writers and writers belonging to the category known as “middle authors": in the middle between trade and scholarly in their work, in the middle between selling well and selling poorly. For the well-known and commercially successful writer the big financial decisions about print-run, advertising budget, and paperback sale have generally been made before reviewers have had a go at his book. When his book is being reviewed only his ego is on the line. But reviews for the young or middle author can be decisive. It is not uncommon for a publisher to print a small pressrun of such a writer’s book, awaiting the response—by which is meant the reviews or the interest shown in the book by various television and radio talk-shows—before deciding to print the book in substantial numbers.
Perhaps I ought to make a distinction between good reviews and reviews that sell books. The best book reviews are only rarely what the publishers can call “sell reviews.” Sell reviews, tend to be blurby: “Don’t exhale till you have read this.” Good reviews can sell books, yet sell reviews are not usually good. Sell reviews are a part of advertising, and it is always a bit embarrassing witnessing a good writer setting out to write one. Even Edmund Wilson was not above this sort of thing. It is sad to read his review of Svetlana Alliluyeva’s Only One Tear, for instance, which will take its place, Wilson tells us, “among the great Russian autobio-graphical works: Herzen, Xropotkin, Tolstoy’s Confession.” I don’t know why Wilson wanted to give a push to the feeble literary effort of Stalin’s daughter, but push, clearly, he did, for the line I have quoted is, along with not being true, sheer blurbissimo.
What is a good book review? A first blush answer is, I suppose, the product of an interesting mind thinking about a book. But there is more to it than that. A reviewer has certain obligations to the book he’s reviewing and to his own readers: he must report what the book is saying; he must make a judgment about how well the author gets it said; and he must determine if what has been said was worth saying in the first place. Not to be dull, not to be fearful, not to scamp the duties of clear summary—these are the minimum requirements that a good book reviewer must meet.
Yet another quality ought to be part of his temperamental equipment, and this is a controlled anger aroused by breaches in literary justice. When bad writers are praised or good writers neglected or ill-understood, he should feel personally offended. His pique, though, ought to be more than personal. Judging books correctly is of the utmost seriousness to him; misjudging a novel is of no less consequence than, say, misjudging a friendship.
Not all good reviewers have had this anger, of course, although most have. H.L. Mencken could scarcely function without it. V. S. Pritchett, on the other hand, seems scarcely to have had any anger at all in his long career, and even today he puts his best energies into making careful literary discriminations, not berating authors. Still, if it doesn’t offend you that American literary academics are able to publish structuralist studies of John Irving, then you probably ought to be in another line of work.
Along with possessing at least a modicum of anger, a good book reviewer ought not to show too much generosity. While always hopeful of discovering real talent—both for the new and the different and for work of a traditional kind—and ready to encourage it with measured praise, the book reviewer must at the same time always be skeptical. Dubiety ought to be his normal condition. Books, unlike criminals, are best judged guilty until proven innocent—for innocent, in this context, read without falsity, fudging, or flagrant flaw. Most current-day reviewers err on the side of generosity— doubtless they want to seem friends to literature—and so literary masterpieces are announced more frequently than station-breaks. Generosity, like humility, can be carried too far. Jonathan Yardley, Doris Grumbach, Robert Coles, and Robert Towers are four people who review too generously. Their liking a book carries no weight—they like so many.
Anyone of any literary maturity knows that, even in a population of roughly two-hundred-and-forty million people, rare is the year in which more than fifteen to twenty truly first-class books are published. By good books I mean books that have a chance of being read with profit ten years or so after the time of their original publication, the qualification that Cyril Connolly, in Enemies of Promise, set up for a book of the kind he would have liked to have written but felt he had failed to write. Of course, there are interesting bad books, and interesting failed books, and books that have been wildly acclaimed and need to be shot down. There are older books that are usefully re-evaluated in the light of a later day and books that have been unfairly neglected. In sum, there is no shortage of reviewing work to be done.
Where the shortage exists is in the number of competent workers to do it. Has it ever been thus? Quite possibly it has. In 1914, in a brief essay entitled “Reviewing: An Unskilled Labour,” Edward Thomas referred to the majority of reviewers as “a rabble of ridiculous and unlovely muddlers.” In the same essay he divided book reviews into four kinds: “the interesting and good; the interesting but bad; the uninteresting but good; the uninteresting and bad.” And, Thomas noted, “most are of the last kind.” Raymond Chandler, writing to his English publisher Hamish Hamilton in 1949, is scarcely cheerier on the subject of reviewing: “There are far, far too many novelists reviewing other novelists. There is far too much consideration for books that are obviously going to get nowhere, and far too little understanding of what it is in books that make people read them. And there is a tight group of critics or reviewers who are monotonously willing to say something nice about almost any book at all.” Recall, please, that both Thomas and Chandler were writing not about America, where complaints about the thinness of culture have long been commonplace, but about England, where traditions of intellectual journalism have run deeper than they have run here.
Part of the reason for the paucity of able reviewers, now as in the past, has to do with the difficulties and disadvantages inherent in the form of the book review itself. To begin with, it has never been quite clear what the purposes of a book review are. Should a review grade the author, passing out complaints and criticism along the way? Should it chiefly perform a service for readers, informing them whether the book under review is or is not a waste of their time? Or should it combine both tasks, an aid to both writers and readers? And there is the question of whether a book reviewer can do these things while still being mildly entertaining. Book-review readers and book-review editors are not noted for desiring their edification straight.
Then, too, in the view of the world there is something slightly second-class about book reviewing, this despite the fact that many of the great essays of the nineteenth century, including those of Macaulay and Sainte-Beuve, began as book reviews. Cyril Connolly and Edmund Wilson were two of the best book reviewers to have written in English in our own century, yet neither of them, I suspect, would very much have liked to think himself a book reviewer chiefly, even though, if you laid out their writing by the yard, the amount of prose they expended on book reviews in their careers would be city blocks longer than that of any other form they worked in. But then reviewers one approves of are not known as reviewers but as critics. Something of the odor of Grub Street still clings to the activity of book reviewing; something of the foul reputation of hackwork, however undeserved it may be.
A critic is assumed to be deeper than a reviewer, but one of the significant differences in the working conditions of the two is that the critic usually has more space available to him to work out his ideas, and more time to think them through. Unlike the reviewer, he does not work under deadline pressure. Edmund Wilson cited H. L. Mencken and Van Wyck Brooks as “reviewer critics,” noting: “These are extremely rare. Most people who are capable of first-rate criticism do not want to interrupt their other work for jobs as unremunerative as book reviews.” And the critic who is able to write a competent review is rare as well. It is difficult to imagine, say, R. P. Blackmur writing well—or even intelligibly—at fifteen hundred words. Or Yvor Winters or F. R. Leavis. On the other hand, reading a regular reviewer like Christopher Lehmann-Haupt at six thousand words feels less like reading an essay than suffering punishment for a crime.
Space is almost always a serious limitation. As someone who still does a certain amount of book reviewing, I know I have decided against taking on at least three assignments in recent months because the length at which I would be allowed to write seemed inhibiting. One request was to review, for the magazine New York, John Kenneth Galbraith’s autobiography; nine hundred words were wanted. Another was to review the most recent edition of The American Heritage Dictionary for The New York Times Book Review at, roughly, fifteen hundred words. The third was to review A Margin of Hope, Irving Howe’s autobiography, for The Chicago Tribune at nine hundred words. I chose not to do the Galbraith because I felt disposed to attack him, and thought that if I were to do so effectively I needed more space to lay out such artillery, armor, and troops as I possess. The American Heritage Dictionary I felt best written about at essay length. As for Irving Howe, about his career I have rather complicated feelings that I didn’t think I could sort out in under a thousand words. (The Chicago Tribune was probably not the best place to sort them out in anyway. I could already see the Tribune’s newspaper-like headline over the review— “Jewish Critic Sees Hope”—which was in itself a discouragement.)
If too little space is often discouraging to reviewers, too much space is quite as often discouraging to readers. And not merely to newspaper readers. Once The New York Review of Books got underway in earnest, one of the first complaints one heard from many of its readers was about its reviewers going on at what was felt to be monstrous length. John Gross, while editor of the London Times Literary Supplement, used to send me books to review without ever specifying any length. I was, apparently, to write about the book at the length I thought suitable, which in my case meant my turning a review into an essay of four or five thousand words. I was delighted, of course, but I’m not sure I can say the same for the readers of the TLS.
Along with possessing at least a modicum of anger, a good book reviewer ought not to show too much generosity.
Who reviews? Apart from those professionals who review books full-time for weekly magazines and for the few American daily newspapers that are large enough to employ book-reviewers regularly, the people who review books in the United States tend to be academics, novelists, and poets who need a bit of extra money, people with bookish interests who for one reason or another work at non-bookish jobs, and the young who wish somehow to break into the literary life and find doing so through reviewing easier than other ways. Professional reviewers are few in number, and Paul Theroux, writing last year in Harper’s, thought this an unfortunate thing. Theroux wrote:
Most of all, university patronage has spelled the decline of book reviewing in the United States. After the foundations delivered novelists into the arms of the universities, there was no need for anyone to engage in the habitual tasks associated with the profession of letters. A campus of creative writers does not mean that the local newspaper will be lively with literary journalism; it means its opposite. Book reviewing, the literary essay, the feuilleton—all of these went out the window when university patronage came in the door; and a sharp, and I think, unfair, distinction came to be drawn between the literary man and the literary journalist.
I rather doubt it. The decline of reviewing cannot, I think, be blamed on the university. It was not, after all, very good before. Dwight Macdonald years ago used to call Charles Poore and Orville Prescott, the regular daily reviewers of The New York Times, “the lead-dust twins.” Francis Brown, when editor of The New York Times Book Review, used to prefer what he called “up” reviews—“up” standing for “upbeat,” for which read positive, pro, sell reviews. If anyone can remember a time when the Saturday Review ran good book reviews he must be in his eighties at least.
Good reviews do get written, but most book reviewing in this country is mediocre, and quite possibly always will be. The people who do reviewing do it as a bit of work peripheral to work that is more truly at the center of their lives. Reviewing doesn’t pay very much, and most book reviewers tend to give dollar value—that is to say, not very much. A review that is properly done—with the reviewer reading all the other books of the author under review, looking into connected works on the same subject, and taking serious pains in composing his prose— will probably earn a reviewer well under the minimum wage. As a motive for reviewing, money isn’t a very good one.
But when one begins to talk about motives for reviewing one enters very tricky terrain indeed. In classifying book reviewers, Edmund Wilson mentioned “people who want to write about something else.” As a subsection of this category, I would add people who want to write but don’t otherwise have anything in particular to write about. When I think back to my own early days as a reviewer, my chief motive for reviewing was writing itself and—no small thing—appearing in print. I looked for books to review that I thought I might be able to say something interesting about. With a brashness that now rather impresses me, I accepted all books that were offered to me for review whether I knew anything about the subject or not. If I didn’t know anything about a subject, I would read up on it before sitting down to write the review. One week I might find myself reviewing the memoirs of Alexander Herzen, another week the collected writings of Santayana, a month or so later the autobiography of Bertrand Russell or a biography of Frank Lloyd Wright. This, I believe, is what is known as getting one’s education in public, and this, through book reviewing, is what I did.
The advantage of book reviewing for the young is that it gives them something to write about. I know it did me. I would not go so far as to say that any of the reviews I wrote in my twenties were of intellectual interest, but I always took great care with their composition, and so at least produced highly burnished cliches. Thus I admired Bertrand Russell’s idealism, Santayana’s exquisiteness, Frank Lloyd Wright’s radicalism. None of this was exactly front page news; still, I got away with it, for the editors of the journals I reviewed for believed in these cliches, too. I was reminded of my own youthful performances only the other day when I rejected, for The American Scholar, a review that came in over the transom of Gershom Scholem’s Walter Benjamin, The Story of A Friendship, written by a young man who had graduated from college in 1978. It was a crisply written review but observant of every pietistic cliche about Walter Benjamin, and the author of the review seemed not to consider the possibility that of the two men, Scholem and Benjamin, it was Scholem who was the towering figure. But then a person under thirty who could write well about this particular book would probably have to be at least as smart as Scholem himself.
One of the things that reviewing taught me was that certain kinds of books made for better reviews than do other kinds. Biographies, autobiographies, diaries, journals, and collections of letters I have always found pleasurable to write about. The reason for this is that, even in fifteen hundred words, such books permit me to do a portrait in miniature of the author under review. Novels are less easily reviewed, especially if they are shoddily made, though it is best to be able to review a novelist who has written a number of novels so that one’s review can turn on his career. Although I have reviewed books about poets, I have never attempted to review a book of poetry, and I have yet to see this delicate job well done in book reviews of normal length. The sad thing is that, given the lack of interest in poetry in the great world, few book-review editors feel justified in allowing reviews of poetry to run beyond the normal length; more often, they do not review poetry at all, except that written by established names—under the assumption, apparently, that what cannot be done well should not be done at all. Poets reviewing other poets is rarely a solution.
The ideal book reviewer ought to be someone whose passion for literature is evident in everything he writes. His own literary quality should be obvious in his prose. If he is an academic, he shouldn’t allow this to show through. His point of view ought to be clear, recalling in this connection a remark made in a V. S. Naipaul novel that a collection of opinions does not necessarily add up to a point of view. Wit is helpful but not absolutely required. Courage is. If the reviewer cannot say what he thinks he does best to keep silent and not try to fudge his true views. A conscience is called for, too; for while the reviewer ought to be skeptical about new books, he must also be fair in his account of them. Finally, if this does not seem a contradiction, the ideal book reviewer probably does best not to review books too often, lest he become what Edith Wharton once called “a magazine bore.” Too much book reviewing dulls the mind.
I have rattled on at considerable length about the limitations of book reviews and of book reviewing, yet I myself continue to read book reviews and I continue to review books. On the latter front, though, I find myself more and more frequently turning down offers to review books, and not just because of insufficient space. For example, a late Friday afternoon call comes in from an editor of The New York Times Book Review, he informs me that he has in hand a book by a man who has written essayistically about the effects of women’s liberation on men. It appears to be a serious book, he says, quite well written. He thinks I am the sort of person who has thought about such things, and could write interestingly on them. Unfortunately, he is wrong. I could not write well on such things; I could not write well on them because I have not much thought about them. And I do not much care to think about them. Women’s liberation, midlife crisis, sexual identity, such items make up what I think of as the contemporary noise, and, thank you for asking, I would just as soon keep my voice out of it.
Yet I do find myself agreeing to review books I feel I ought to be reading. Novels, for instance. I have in recent years found it exceedingly easy not to read contemporary novels. A fat Styron, two Malamuds, three Robert Stones, four John Updikes, five John Irvings had passed through unread by me. Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Manuel Puig, a whole new generation of novelists had come into being without my having read them. I felt a certain bad conscience about this, and have since partially remedied it by agreeing to review fiction fairly regularly for Commentary magazine. There is this, too: writing about these novelists gives me a chance to have my say, or, as T. S. Eliot put it in his essay “The Function of Criticism,” “to correct taste,” for I have strong views about the novel.
In the rhinestone age, there is a great deal of glitter but there are no real gems.
Along with the aesthetic pleasure of forming what I hope are interesting sentences, the soupçon of glory to be had from appearing in print, and the delight in being paid money to read and write about books, the attraction of reviewing books for me has indeed been the chance it offers to correct taste—and I say chance because I am not aware of having specifically corrected any. Still, in reviewing a book one likes to think—I certainly began my own career by thinking—that one is in a serious conversation about the shape and fate of culture, itself a most serious thing. Ideally, the part of reviewing in this conversation is to place the books under review in their line or tradition and to judge their quality and importance. In reality I can think of no finer description of what this so-called conversation has become than Eliot’s famous description of criticism generally as “no better than a Sunday park of contending and contentious orators.” In this park everyone has his soapbox—feminists, Marxists, Poundians, Freudians, structuralists, deconstructionists. It sometimes seems as if only nudists and vegetarians are missing, and I am not too sure about the vegetarians.
The age of the lead-dust twins is long over; the rhinestone kids now hold sway. I continue to read book reviews but now chiefly to take a reading of the intellectual weather. Certainly reviews are not very much help in discovering what the good new books are. Reviewers like lots of books, but why they like them is often a mystery. Thus, to cite an example near at hand, the front page of the September 5, 1982, New York Times Book Review has a review of Joyce Carol Oates’s novel A Bloodsmoor Romance by Diane Johnson. Miss Johnson is herself a novelist and a biographer, and a woman of some literary cultivation. She apparently thinks well of Miss Oates’s novel. I say apparently because while she appears to be praising this six-hundred-odd-page work she never tells us what is good about it. The review is all plot summary, with a touch of explication (“. . . Joyce Carol Oates has found a way to assuage our Puritanical guilt about escape by writing romance that is satirical, and thus about something, but which is still successful as romance”) and a grain of criticism ("One seldom feels that from book to book one comes to know her better”). It ends on a fine note of ambiguous puffery: “Even those who find balloon abductions thin should be satisfied by this richness of detail.”
The formula of Miss Johnson’s review—limpid summary combined with limp criticism—has become increasingly common in the age of the rhinestone kids. Because of this abnegation of criticism in reviewing, writers who do not seem to grow better with age—Philip Roth, John Updike—nonetheless somehow become proclaimed masters, John Irving’s novels receive praise of a kind that would have brought a blush to the cheek of Caesar, and The New Republic can run a piece of puffery by R. W. B. Lewis on the new editions of The Library of America next to the spewing flattery of which the normal television commercial sounds like Schopenhauer. In the rhinestone age, there is a great deal of glitter but there are no real gems.
The intrusion of politics into culture—one of the major motifs in the cultural history of the past quarter century—has of course not been without its effect on reviewing. If you write a book of criticism or history today, or any other kind of nonfiction, you get a sense of how very politicized our cultural life has become. Reviewing, you quickly learn, turns into a game of friends and enemies, and the way to tell a friend is that he shares your opinions. Your book either gets into the hands of reviewers who agree with your opinion, and who will praise your book for having the good sense to agree with the reviewer, or into the hands of reviewers who disagree with your opinions and who will smash your book for your having the effrontery to think differently than they. Most journals are pretty much lined up beforehand, and you can predict, depending on the opinions expressed in the book, how, say, The Nation and National Review will treat the book. In some cases you can’t always guess in advance whether the book will be sent out to someone who will agree or disagree with it, and so you wait, as in roulette, for the ball to fall. But in the end it usually comes to the same thing: agreeing or disagreeing, neither of which is quite the same as reviewing.
"Hidden agendas,” as the fine new phrase for secret motives has it, frequently can be read in book reviews in all sorts of places. In the cowardliness of a reviewer’s repressed views can be read a fear of upsetting such powers as are thought to be, a hope for an improved social life, a wish to be invited back to do another review. Praise for books the reviewer obviously did not take pleasure or instruction from—Miss Johnson, for example, on Miss Oates—can mask a subconscious desire not to make waves, to show that one can be counted on to go along with the game. (The game in this particular case is to build Joyce Carol Oates into a major novelist, which, but for one little drawback, seems to be working: the little drawback being Miss Oates’s novels.) Other reviews are clearly a matter of friends passing puffs, as when, a year or so ago in The New Republic, Mark Harris wrote a throttle full-out praising review of a collection of short stories by Richard Stern, Mr. Stern—ahem—being the dedicatee of Mr. Harris’s own previous book. Other crimes could be catalogued here.
Yet one of the differences between life and literature in the United States is that in literature, with the possible exceptions of fraud and plagiarism, crimes go unpunished. A shame, really. What is needed is a court that, in the spirit of the Lord High Executioner, metes out literary punishment to fit literary crimes. Such a court might sentence Diane Johnson to read, and show proof that she has read, all thirty-odd of Joyce Carol Oates’s books. It would require reviewers who have shown in their reviews distinct evidence of cowardice or obsequiousness to write ten reviews of Graham Greene’s autobiography—five praising, five damning. Mark Harris and Richard Stern would be sentenced to slam, in conspicuous places, each other’s next three books. As for first-time and minor offenders, they would be sentenced to read the collected reviews of John Leonard, and to discover in each review the exact point at which that particular rhinestone reviewer disappears up his own metaphors.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 1 Number 4, on page 32
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