Accent on Living

I READ a first novel the other day that seems to me very persuasive indeed — an unabashed melodrama, exciting, moving right along and, by reason of much vivid detail, convincing. The writing was admirable, the author plainly a man of taste and discernment. It was the kind of book, I judged — erroneously — which would either be praised by reviewers or be ignored altogether. It was a “regional" novel, laid in a country which I shall call Nirvana.

It astonished me some days later to come upon a bulky full-dress review of this work. A fine thing, I thought, that this worthy book by a new author has earned for itself so thoroughgoing a critique, and I plunged in all innocence into comparing notes with the critic. I regret to report that our findings had littlein common. It would not be quite fair to say that he fell on the book as on a tackling dummy and brought it to earth with a crash. His negatives were less headlong, but he left the reader in no doubt that here was an effort that missed out cleanly on just about every count. He did concede that the novelist (who had been born and raised in Nirvana and had lived there for most of his life) was not unfamiliar with certain parts of the region, but that was about all. Scheme? Commonplacc. Characters? Artificial. Writing? Bah!

At this point, I could not help wondering what all the shooting was about. Why set up this pathetic little tin can on so conspicuous a stump, before so large an audience, and pepper away at it for a full page? I remembered with a vague sense of guilt my own enjoyment of the novel, and I was trying to account for what might have been a bias of my own, when suddenly all became clear. Why was the reviewer, whom I shall call Henry Dudgeon, so down on the book? The answer lay in an editorial note about him. “Mr. Dudgeon,”so the note went, “is the author of two novels about Nirvana.”

The proprietary type of reviewing — and surely some formal term for so widespread a critical form is warranted— is by no means limited to regional novels. Its incidence is just as frequent in history, biography, poetry, travel books, textbooks, and everything else.

Oscar Lewis once touched up the historian-proprietor-reviewer very handsomely in a chapter of his novel I Remember Christine (“Portrait of a Professor,”April, 1942, Atlantic): “His reviews are always models of impartiality. He goes into the subject in detail and with authority. He weighs the book’s good and bad qualities, points out errors of fact and interpretation, and tells what field the author has attempted to cover and why he has failed.”

Whenever the proprietary approach wears thin, the literary editor can turn to the symbolism school of reviewing. This is carried on by critics who have staked out no special field as their own private reserve but who are very fast men with a symbol. There is no reality in any book which Brood, the symbolist critic, reviews: it all means something else, and here, fortunately, is Brood to explain matters.

Brood has the drop on the author, and on the reader, all the way. His patient explanation of what a novelist has tried to achieve is handed down with far more assurance than even the author could muster. Brood’s reader will have to write himself off as one who has muffed all the larger meanings of the novel. At the most, all the author could ever do to set matters straight would be to write a letter to the literary editor and say he hadn’t meant it that way at all.

What would the symbolist reviewer make, for instance, of The Caine Mutiny? “Although Mr. Wouk’s book contains much distracting detail,” Brood would write, “he has chosen to unfold his story in symbols which t he structure of his novel fails to support. Thus we begin with young Willie Keith on his graduation from Princeton and his employment as a pianist in a night club, a position which Mr. Wouk has devised to symbolize Willie’s mother. But the mother is plainly intended by the author to symbolize war itself, whereas the whole theme of the war in The Caine Mutiny is no more than the symbol of Marie Minotti, whom Mr. Wouk seems to regard as Willie’s Italian-American love-object.

“Marie is, of course, the symbol for Princeton — that is, adolescence,” Brood would continue; “but Mr. Wouk’s management of these complex relationships falters when he installs the Princeton-symbol in the Aztec Lounge of a Seventh Avenue hotel whose name — possibly in recognition of the degree to which the whole book is indebted to Kafka — is not vouchsafed the reader.”

The remedy for this kind of reviewing is simple enough, if literary editors wish to apply it: the symbolist critic would be assigned nothing but nonfiction — preferably books on gardening, home handcrafts, poultry management, first aid, Diesel engine repairing, and such. Proprietary reviewers could be blanked out simply by withholding all assignments from anyone who had ever published a, book, or hoped to publish a book, about anything.