Reviewmanship and the I-Wrote-a-Book Disease

"Writers expect too much. They expect, like God, to begin with the word and end with rest on the seventh cay, which is the day when everybody reads the New York Times Book Review."

Anxiety and paranoia are epidemic conditions in civilized life, but one of the most curious subdivisions of these maladies is the dreaded I-Wrote-A-Book Disease, a weakness and rage which spread throughout the limbs, affecting brain, spine, toes, scalp, conjunctiva, and wives. The initial symptoms appear just after the pleasure of publisher’s first enthusiasm subsides, and indeed, seem to bear some relationship to a previous condition known as I-Wrote-A-Book euphoria, during which your average novelist haunts the post office to see when the new six-cent commemorative stamps will appear, the ones with his portrait engraved upon them. Another symptom: the runny mouth.

Exchanges of special-delivery hints, telegraphic complaints, and long-distance telephone advices with the publisher characterize the onset of the disease. From instant pleasure the novelist tumbles to instant longsuffering over such matters as jacket design, misprints in the proof, and delays at the printer. His temperature increases as the tempo of injustice accelerates. By the time the Virginia Kirkus Service and Publisher’s Weekly reports are in with their early reviews, the writer is unfit to be tied. In fact, he is fit only to be sprinkled with feathers, since he has already been doused with the hot tar of afterthought, misunderstanding, and Manhattan plotting against him. In days long gone, epilepsy was considered a divine ailment, bestowing secret pleasures upon the sufferer, plus the gift of prophecy. In the early stages of I-Wrote-A-Book, the writer twitches and similarly indulges in foretelling of the future. “I’ll kill the sons of bitches. I’ll change publishers. I’ll print the goddamn thing myself next time.” Like other fortune tellers, he infrequently keeps his promises.

I consider myself one of the world’s great authorities on certain subjects of general import, ranging from survival in Haiti to the meaning of life, and also on this one of more special urgency. As the writer of a number of books, I have received on various occasions (a) almost all bad reviews, (b) mixed reviews, and (c) almost entirely good reviews. Oddly enough, the latter result, which would seem so much more desirable, doesn’t eliminate the satyrs ache. I have observed about good reviews, of myself and others: OK, they’re good, but they’re not good enough. OK, they’re great, but they’re not the greatest. OK, the hook is a masterpiece, but is it the greatest masterpiece? And why can’t the critic (coward! hack!) admit it?

In other words, writing a public fantasy involves a sort of nymphomania of desire to delight, astonish, reveal, whelm, and overwhelm. Momentary joys are fraught with pervading anxieties. The worst reviews accompany, in personal life, desperate attempts at revenge, suicide, divorce, and marriage. And so do the best reviews. An enormously successful, world-famous novelist suffered a physical and nervous collapse when his first renown came flooding in on him. “Is that all?” he explained. ‘Is that all there is? And I’ve worked so much for this? Silly praise and baskets of mail and demands on me to fly around and stand in front of dinner tables? I’ve filled my life with obsession and vanity for merely this?”

A deep thought, it’s true—whether so much sacrifice of feeling is necessary to bear the emblem of feeling for others—but depth of thought didn’t prevent his attacking one critic in the snow and rolling with him in a West Side Manhattan gutter. His dream of mastery was as abraded, by renown, as the dream of the forgotten first novelist who sighed, gave up, and went back in his job at J. Walter Thompson.

Writers expect too much. They expect, like God, to begin with the word and end with rest on the seventh cay, which is the day when everybody reads the New York Times Book Review. Instead, they strike the rock like Moses, and run the risks of blindness. From afar a voice in a cloud says, Be happy with the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Nonetheless, though I would like to blame the psychic vulnerability of writers for their excesses in the field of pain, it’s also true that the reviewing of books is an ambiguous practice that tends to spread infection. Every writer can tell his story about this: he may have amnesia about his childhood, the war, and his first three marriages, but he recalls his abuse in the press. 1 would like, abandoning caution, to suggest a few occasions for Saint-Beuve Flu, beginning with one in which I am clearly the villain.

Twenty years ago, in student days (Paris, GI Bill), I was writing a first novel when the editor of a little magazine asked me to review a new book by Nelson Algren. I read it with rage. I thought it trivial, windy, derogatory of the human species; it violated the principles I had learned from Aristotle and the Columbia College humanities program; I savaged the book in a hot, merciless, young-man’s review. The book was The Man With the Golden Arm, and I have never forgotten it. The characters are still vivid and touching, the prose is heated, urban-weird, with disturbing rhythms. Years later I realized why I couldn’t put the book out of my mind: I had been moved by it. True, it violated my principles, but my principles were wrong. I was writing a first book by principle, and Algren had written a book from his chaotic feelings. With all its crudities, the book has a mythic power.

Much later I learned to feel shame for an act of projection onto Algren of my own growing pains. I did my best to make it up to him. When I met him a few years ago, I confessed my sin in Paris circa 1950 and apologized. He seemed to fall asleep in the middle of my touching little speech.

Saul Bellow, once said about a heedless critic, “Over every one of his reviews stands a secret, invisible headline—1 have written three unpublished novels.”

There is no doubt that principle is often a better guide to thinking than chaos, and many graduate students are smarter and more informed than most novelists. Nevertheless, there are things which even a graduate student in philosophy doesn’t know, but which Nelson Algren knew. His drowsiness, for example, was a masterstroke of revenge.

Now perhaps I have earned a bit of revenge myself. When I asked Vladimir Nabokov which American writers he admired, he said, “Several, but then refused to specify by actually naming them. Anonymous praise hurts nobody.’’ And if anonymous dispraise hurts everybody, so much the more objective.

Reviewmanship taxes the integrity muscles. Once I sought to review a close friend’s book—I admire both the man’s character and the book—by beginning with a frank acknowledgment that it was a book whose progress I had followed in the way of a friend. I thought this might set a new standard for other reviewers, who would then be obliged by the mighty force of example to acknowledge the weight of friendship, repaid debts, enmities, rivalries, extraneous calculations implicated in their reviews. The book-review editor rejected my notice by saying, “We don’t admit friendship plays any part in reviewing. If it does, we don’t admit it.” And it was also clear that he was rejecting me for betraying the charade of objectivity. Furthermore, in somewhat prim fashion, he was saying that readers would be put off by the truth and by the sense of personality, a real human being who gets wet in the shower, writing and responding to a book written by another person.

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