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.

Corrupt democracy is a better form of government than Spartan rigor, I’m sure. But make-believe blind justice is not as good as honest avowal, and not as just. “I Speak the Truth,” says the modest book-summarizer; “I Lay Down the Law,” proclaims the anonymous critic; better neither an institutional, bureaucratic ukase nor a finicky pretense at justice reading in braille. Better that the reviewer speak in his own voice, indicating where he stands, so that the reader also knows where he stands. Orville Prescott, long the powerful daily reviewer for the New York Times, was a perfect critic for me. I knew that his liking a book meant that I would hate it, and conversely, when he said he hated a book, it was a good augury for my reading. He rarely missed my aim. When he described Lolita as dull and boring, I knew I would find it fascinating and thrilling. To be a good guide is the best thing a reviewer can do, and Mr. Prescott served this function for many book-buyers.

There are several prevalent institutional conceptions of book reviewing:

1. Sell the book. This is less common than it used to be; an attempt to develop standards has gotten under way—or an attempt to abolish standards, as in camp, which amounts to the same moral seriousness.

2. De-sell the book; I’m smarter than the writer, which is why I don’t have to undergo this neurotic experience of giving up real life for book writing, actually doing it. (What’s the writer trying to prove? What’s his problem?) This is more common than it used to be, a byproduct of standard-developing in the light of shaky taste.

3. The Institutional Informational Review. You’ve read the review, you don’t need the book. After all, we of this organ do our best to fill your reading time, we give essences and messages, we instruct fully, we try not to make you miss your stop on the commuter train. The I. I. Review sometimes combines (1) and (2) in a silky way. It is anonymous, as if written by a corporate computer. It has an air of cool omnipotence which a breathing and irascible human being cannot achieve naturally, subject as human beings are to fits of whim and responsibility.

There are other types of reviews, too: The Review of my Friend’s Book, the English Review of a Colonial Work, the I’m-Writing/Have-Written-a-Similar-Book Review, and so forth. At various times, I’ve been asked to review from the point of view of: a Cleveland writer, a Jewish writer, a New York writer, an expatriate writer, a San Francisco writer, a beat/hip writer, a young writer, a middle-aged writer, a sometimes-married writer, a contributor-to-quarterlies writer, and-um-a writer who gets his reviews in on time.

The anonymous review, which suggests total judgment by an infallible institution, and in fact makes possible either cowardly assault or craven praise by the faceless keypuncher, has gradually slipped from favor with increasing sophistication. Newsweek abandoned it years ago; Life signs its effective notices; Look has Peter S. Prescott, a reviewer with a defined personal voice; perhaps Time, Playboy, and the brief New Yorker sideswipes are the chief remaining offenders. But even Time has experimented with revealing the names of its reviewers, leaving the institutional reports of Playboy and the New Yorker out front with the banner of inconsequent authority. (The New Yorker tends to free-form assassination or faint praise with faint breath; Playboy deals more responsibly with its own wieldy point of view, and oddly enough, confesses with quirkinesses of style that people, not overworked machines, have done the reviewing.)

In a class by itself stands the New York Review of Books, which is both serious and trivial (“No, Madame, quadrivial”—James Joyce). It is serious because it gives its group of writers space to discuss books and other matters in depth, and also because it is taken seriously. It risks irrelevance and frivolity because of persistent personal friendship-mongering and enemy-hatcheting. Friends often review friends, demolition experts the rest. A classic example is James Baldwin’s ardent review of Elia Kazan’s novel The Arrangement, which embarrassed even the editors of what one critic has named the New York Review of Each Other’s Books, It has a well-defined point of view (earnest, elegant, radical), and that’s a contribution. It serves the Each Other too assiduously, probably honestly convinced that Each Other is all that matters, but this limits its reliability. Persistent OK-ness lowers the moral tone.

The traditional justification for the anonymous review is aulde English practice in the Times Literary Supplement. In England they used to know each other; the thought was that a man could be honest—objective—If his identity was protected. He wouldn’t have to apologize to his friends. But in fact even in England the reviewers tend to be identified—particularly in the case of the friend’s review; and even in England the freedom of the anonymous put-down has traditionally been exercised with glee by liberated malice. What didn’t work in England doesn’t work in the United States, either. What worked badly in England works worse here. It turns out that the craftsman, signing and taking responsibility for his words, is more serious than the chap hiding behind the protection of a bureaucratic enterprise. The surprise is that anyone expected a different psychology from reviewers than from other men working for hire. The spirit of the anonymous medieval cathedral-builders, laboring for the glory of God, is absent from the short notices of the New Yorker.

Signed assaults, while also painful, admit the suspicion that a fallible person has reacted to a book. Also they admit the possibility of carrying a grudge with an identifying ribbon tied to it. Professor Irwin Corey argues for the blessedness of hatred on the grounds that with-out hatred there is no joy in revenge.

My favorite abusive review (every novelist has his own collection, along with the remedying dolls and pins) began by stating that it as a good thing I look like Gregory Peck and play great tennis, because Fathers proved that I sure can’t write. (In fact, my tennis is ardently mediocre, and Gregory Peck looks more like Zero Mostel than I look like him.) The review built from these items of inaccurate praise to a crescendo demonstration of my worthlessness, greed, and senility. A few years later a young man approached me at a party in New York, introduced himself, and took my hand; and by the time I could respond by removing my five best fingers, I had already handed him half a handshake. “I know you must be bugged with me,” he said, “hut man, I apologize. Look, it was one of my first reviews, and I wanted to make a reputation for myself. 1 really apologize, man. Let me buy you a drink, OK?”

My friend George P. Elliott, Who overheard the conversation, made his usual rigorous Protestant estimation of how to show repentance. He suggested that the man write his apology in the magazine where the nuisance had been committed. On our way out, the reviewer popped up again and asked to join us for a drink. “No,” I said.

“But it’s raining!” he said, and true, it was, and the only bar that was nearby was the one where see were heading.

Personal contact with a reviewer can make for much worse trouble than absence from the felicity. Once I remarked winningly, I thought—charmingly, lightly, bravely—about a long review which had treated me as the great menace to the American novel. “Why did she bother writing about my book that way? It’s not even a best seller.’’ Winning, charming, light, and brave, as remarks go, is it not? But then I was quoted thusly “Herbert Gold whined that he was attacked even though he isn’t popular.”

Ah, I whine fruitlessly, that’s not hat my song said at all.

Another time I was touched by an unusually perceptive and responsive review in a daily newspaper; I wrote the critic (note that he became a critic rather than a reviewer as soon he began to appreciate me properly). His reply arrived a few days later in rapid, inaccurate typing on newspaper copy paper: “Schmuck, I only had a day to read your novel and write my notice. What makes you think I know anything about it? Just write books and leave me lone, please.”

A curious reverse twist in the infinite variety of reviewmanship came to me not long ago in the form of a letter from an editor, along with galleys of a new novel, in which the editor asked for comment, statement, reviews, any help at all in selling the book. He introduced it by saying it was “by the frequent reviewer X,” with a clear implication; Now your novelist to praise, tomorrow perhaps your very own reviewer.”

I flung both letter and book aside with annoyance. Then it happened that I picked up the book, started reading, and liked it a great deal. Now what to do? I wrote to the editor along these lines: liked the book, hated your letter.  Even though it might help me to get a good review from Mr. X, I’m willing to praise his book, because the book really is remarkable, but your blackmail is atrocious.

A Soviet legend has it that Stalin, in his last paranoid days, called Molotov in and said, “I hear a rumor that you’re a Jew.”

“But my friend!” cried Molotov. “You’ve known me all my life, you know my family, how can you say such a thing?’’

Stalin puffed silently on his pipe. At last he said, “Well think it over.”

The letter about the “frequent reviewer” is that sort of comment. Would you like to like this book? it asks. Well, think it over.

When the publisher printed my comment on the book jacket, he deleted the accusation of blackmail. There are the reviewers who never read a writer, but are always “rereading,” even a book just published, because they like to think of themselves as culture critics permanently evaluating the totality of human experience. There are the counterphobic reviewers, who seek joy and renown by saying the opposite of what everyone else says (Harold Robbins is high American tragic camp; Bernard Malamud writes soap opera). There are the truth-trumpeters who bruit about the obvious with an air of chagrined satisfaction (the times are corrupt! many men fail in their best hopes!); there are the integrity-upholders who stand like the Atlas of Rockefeller Center with the burdens of history on their swelling backs (Nabokov’s new novel disappoints a lover of Giraudoux, Homer, and Shchedrin). Those who tell us they have standards are often smug and abstract, have no eyes to see with, hear only the distant drum of vanity. But those who really have no standards are at the mercy of this year’s fad, beat or hip or camp or pornographic or just the well-promoted product issued by a canny publisher. In this paragraph of denunciation, I have to include myself as occasionally truth-trumpeting, integrity-upholding, abstract, self-righteous, and maybe, worst of all, sometimes even trying to see virtue in that in which others have found virtue. But I am generally cautious, sometimes ardent. If you respect yourself, you can still have a drink with me while it rains outside.

What it comes down to, from the novelist’s point of view, is this: he has delivered himself of a book, and it pangs him mightily. He is standing in the night and from his mouth-a cry. He is bowing toward the East, where Manhattan lies, and his voice is borne but dimly on the wind.

If the word from Manhattan is friendly, lie issues forth a negligent “Thank you,” and returns quietly into his fantasy of eternal truth and beauty.

But if the machine speaks harshly, he shakes his fist at the sky, and his howl can be heard all the way into the kitchen: “Plague, malediction, eternal war henceforward! May the Grand Wazir of Cleveland put a curse upon thy soul!”