Author: Meyers, Jeffrey
Date published: January 1, 2012
In his witty and exasperated "Confessions of a Book Reviewer" (1946), George Orwell portrayed himself as a Grub Street hack and wrote, "the prolonged, indiscriminate reviewing of books is a quite exceptionally thankless, irritating and exhausting job." Over forty years I've published 270 reviews, ranging in length from an anonymous short paragraph to a long review-essay, almost anywhere I couldin 70 newspapers, magazines, weeklies, quarterlies, and academic journals. My own experience has been quite different from Orwell's, though the nature of reviewing has not essentially changed since his day. Though badly paid and unappreciated, many people want to do it. A reviewer participates in the life of literature and ideas while writing his own books. Like literature itself, critiquing involves the ambition, aggression, emotion, and ego of authors, reviewers and editors.
Though sometimes thankless and irritating, reviewing has never been exhausting for me, chiefly because I've been able to choose the books I want to review and never tried to live on the proceeds. Book critics, who like to keep their names before the literate public, are not in the game for the money. My fees vary between zero from scholarly journals to $700 (a one-time jackpot) from a glossy travel magazine. The average fee is $200, and I earn about $10 an hour to read and write about a book. Sometimes, if a review is reprinted, I can make much more than the original fee. Besides keeping me au courant with what's new in publishing, reviewing gives me books I would normally want to own. I was lucky to get the excellent £300, four-volume Oxford University Press edition of Samuel Johnson's Lives of the Poets and the superb $1,200, twenty-volume edition of Orwell's Complete Works. Busy editors are usually glad to have me suggest a title, and I find out about upcoming books from publishers' catalogues (now online), from the spring and fall forecasts of Publishers Weekly, and from English periodicals like the Times Literary Supplement and the London Review of Books.
I normally review letters, memoirs, autobiography, and literary biography- the last a dying genre. The best biographies I've noticed were Joseph Frank's Dostoyevsky and John Richardson's Picasso. I also like to review modern poets and novelists I particularly admire: Theodore Roethke and Elizabeth Bishop, Saul Bellow, Kingsley Amis and Philip Roth; books on art and film; and even works for which I have no expertise: history, science, music, and chess. I love to review major art exhibitions in San Francisco for English journals like Apollo and London Magazine. At the press previews I study the paintings without jostling crowds and get the handsome catalogues.
I write most frequently about my favorite authors: Conrad, Thomas Mann, D. H. Lawrence, T. E. Lawrence, Hemingway, and Orwell. It is interesting to show readers what's worth reading, what's good about new books and what they might have missed. l 've also moved, especially in longer reviews, from a narrow focus on the book itself to my ideas about the subject of the book. I was glad to notice friends like Francis King, James Salter, and Paul Theroux, and to praise littleknown writers like the English novelist Caroline Blackwood and the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski. Reviewers often contend about literary and moral values. In a review of Sir Vidia 's Shadow: A Friendship Across Five Continents, I defended Paul Theroux against zealous, moralistic critics, who called it a "betrayal" of Naipaul that should not have been written. Though he revealed the darker side of Naipaul's character, I thought Theroux was sympathetic, generous, and full of admiration for his mentor. He transformed his approbation, and his pain, into high art.
I always read every word of the books under review and I don't, as once happened to one of my own books, copy the entire review from the words on the dust wrapper or restrict the review to the contents of the first chapter- as far as some reviewers ever get. I once told an Oxford professor that I'd been unable to plow through the highly touted nineteenth-century Spanish novel, La Regenta (1885) by Leopoldo Alas, and wondered how he managed to write his notice. Providing new insight about the methods of other writers, he cavalierly replied that it was not necessary to read the tedious book before reviewing it.
I never accept the author's assertion that he's worked on the book for ten or twenty years- what counts is the number of efficient work hours each day- and I never call a long, door-stop of a book "monumental." I sometimes abandon the review with considerable relief if books like Hermione Lee's Edith Wharton and Jay Parini's William Faulkner are too long and too boring to finish. Unfortunately, many loose, baggy monsters, especially those on race relations and American presidents, often secure the literary prizes. (It's deeply depressing to see a list of the Pulitzer Prize winners of the '30s, '40s and '5Os.) It's more difficult for the author to write, but much easier for the reader to read, a selective 400-page book than to pour every scrap of information into an 800-page tome. A worthwhile review should offer a serious but lively alternative to what often gets printed, even in the New York Times: an ill-informed sixth-grade book report with a simple-minded judgment as worthless as Animal Farm's "four legs good, two legs bad." The best modern reviewers are Edmund Wilson, George Orwell, and Lionel Trilling; the late Frank Kermode, John Bayley, and Denis Donoghue. These critics use striking details and apt quotations to form persuasive judgments. The finest single review I ever read was Alan Bennett's sympathetic, incisive, and amusing response to a biography of his soul mate Philip Larkin. I always ask for a book I think I 'd like and try to be as fair as possible.
One of the important functions of a review is to point out factual errors. I use my familiarity with the subject of the book to correct mistakes and add new insights, as I did with the eight-volume Cambridge University Press editions of the Collected Letters of Conrad and of D. H. Lawrence. In those reviews I included new information that was not known by the Press, the editorial boards, or the teams of editors. If there's no room to list the errors in the review, I send corrections to the author for paperback editions. Almost every book now has many typos and mistakes. As Evelyn Waugh explained, defrocked clergymen are no longer employed as proofreaders.
I started out in the Boston Globe with a wisecrack about the onceesteemed, seventy-five-year-old J. B. Priestley: "one's reaction to a new novel by him might well be 'is he still writing?' " Older and wiser, I'm now more respectful and avoid being clever at authors' expense. But reviewers can enhance or damage a reputation. According to Lord Byron, the sensitive John Keats, "that fiery particle," was snuffed out by a caustic article. Byron considered punching the same critic when his own work was nastily reviewed, but decided instead to drink three bottles of claret. For an author, even a bad review is better than none. A friend told me that he once wrote a savage review of a terrible book in the New York Review of Books. Shortly afterwards he received a letter of thanks from the author. His university was so impressed that his book had been reviewed by a well-known critic in a prominent place that they granted him tenure.
Potential reviewers, like poets and novelists, have to jockey for attention. In Orwell's novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying the bitter antihero, whose work is constantly rejected, exclaims, "Why be so bloody mealy-mouthed about it? Why not say outright, 4We don't want your bloody poems. We only take poems from chaps we were at Cambridge with. ' " Considering the intense competition from Oxbridge graduates with strong old-boy connections, when I lived in England in the 1970s I was lucky to review for the Spectator, New Statesman, Financial Times, and London Magazine. The critic has to contend with changing social attitudes as well as with the biases of editors and journals. When I chose a book by a rather pompous author from the shelves of the Spectator, the feisty editor urged me to "Give it to him!"- and I did. Plagiarism and scandals are always newsworthy, and some editors love to stir up controversy. Others, fearful of being thought insensitive or politically incorrect, are unwilling to risk offense. It would be impossible today to print Orwell's brilliant condemnation of Cyril Connolly's The Rock Pool (1936): "even to want to write about socalled artists who spend on sodomy what they have gained by sponging betrays a kind of spiritual inadequacy."
Success in securing commissions, then, is as much a matter of compatibility of critic and editor as a question of taste and expertise. Like the man invited everywhere- once- I secured but failed to hold a precarious beachhead at the New York Review of Books, the New York Times Book Review, and the Times Literary Supplement. Despite my liberal views, I've done most of my reviews for conservative journals: National Review, New Criterion, Commonweal, Spectator, and Chronicles, an obscure and incestuous publication whose literary editor let me have any book I wanted, didn't meddle with my text, and also published my travel articles. I avoid politics, write about literature in the back pages, and usually escape censorship.
One can't always escape having a review spiked, sometimes for reasons that are neither political nor literary. These occasions are maddening, but can also have happy results. When I reviewed James Wood's fine novel The Book Against God, Prospect magazine in London asked me to judge it by the critical standards expressed in Wood's essays. I did exactly that, but they wanted so many revisions that I withdrew the piece and pocketed the kill fee. I then offered it to a friend's son who works at the New Yorker. He suggested I send it to Steve Wasserman at the Los Angeles Times Book Review, who accepted it the same day. Unfortunately, Wasserman, a fine editor, was forced out for running long, serious reviews and is now an agent in New York. I have not tried to review online, which still seems less real to me than print, but reviewing has recently become more difficult as venues disappear. Many journals have folded in the last forty years, and the book sections of newspapers I once contributed to- in Boston, Philadelphia, Toronto, Chicago, Houston, Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles- have shrunk to half size. They now reprint from other newspapers, use only their own staff, and rarely employ outside reviewers.
When I lived in London I was able to meet editors personally. I knew Alan Ross- cricketer and war hero, ladies' man and poet about town- at the London Magazine. Married to the Fry chocolate heiress, whose wealth supported the magazine, he wore handmade shoes and displayed photographs of his racehorses in the winner's circle. I became a close friend of the cultured raconteur Anthony Curtis, literary editor of the Financial Times, who invited me to write the third review on the Saturday book page in the exalted company of C. P Snow and Peter Quennell. Since I now live in California, I have not met most of my book and magazine editors. When I did research in Charlottesville, I had a congenial alcoholic meal with Staige Blackford of the Virginia Quarterly Review, who'd been a Rhodes Scholar and a spy for the CIA. Hilton Kramer, formerly the art critic of the New York Times, and his successor Roger Kimball (Yale, Catholic, conservative) took me to a lively lunch at the Century Club in New York.
Prickly and imperious editors expect reviewers to stroke the fur and swallow the toad. I once turned down the honor of doing the fiction chronicle for the Hudson Review, a case of lèse majesté, and never got another chance to write for them. Sometimes one can unwittingly hit a sore spot. The Sewanee Review has double-column short reviews in front and full-page longer reviews in back. When I sent in my fourth review and meekly asked George Core if it would appear in the front or back, he exclaimed, "Are you trying to tell me how to run my journal?" dropped the portcullis, and banned me from his pages forever.
One great problem, after years of building a relationship with an editor, is getting dropped when he leaves and a new regime, with its own favorites, takes over. After Joseph Epstein was putsched out of the American Scholar for being insufficiently multicultural, I was also purged and its pages were closed to me. In the 1980s I wrote many reviews for the National Review. During that decade things got a bit sticky when they spiked my reviews of books about Evelyn Waugh and Muriel Spark. The characters of these writers, Catholic converts and particular darlings of the magazine, could not be criticized. It seemed unfair when they printed Dmitri Nabokov's letter attacking me for praising Andrew Field's biography of his father, but did not give me a chance to reply. William Buckley had always sent me encouraging notes and signed copies of his books, but when he retired and my literary editor left with him, I was also put out to pasture. By chance, after an exile of twenty-three years, I've just reentered their pages with a review of the mysterious Bobby Fischer.
Another difficulty is quarrels, sometimes terminal, with editors who not only change my text without consulting me, but also try to put their own clumsy sentences into my review. Poor editors feel obliged to interfere and "edit," even (and especially) when their editing is completely unnecessary. Confident editors- like Sandy McClatchy at the Yale Review, David Lynn at the Kenyon Review, and Jackson Lears at Raritan, all good authors- give me the length I need to discuss an important book and, once they accept the review, publish what l 've written. I try to stay with non-intrusive editors as long as possible.
Staige Blackford had published thirty-one of my articles and reviews in the Virginia Quarterly Review before being killed in a car crash. My fiercest quarrel was with the new editor. Blackford's replacement, Ted Genoways, brought out my long essay on T. E. Lawrence, and in September 2004, when I was completing my biography of Amedeo Modigliani, he asked me to write a forty-page review of all the Walt Whitman biographies. To oblige him, I interrupted my own work and spent two months reading fifteen biographies. In December he wrote: "you've tackled a formidable task with utter aplomb. Some of the bios you tackled are practically unreadable, so it's wonderful to have you analyze them for people with weaker stomachs. I also like the fact that you've placed the question of Whitman's sexuality at the center of the discussion." He sent me printed proofs of the essay in February and a contract that stated, "We are pleased to accept 'Whitman's Lives' for a future issue of VQR."
A few days later Genoways suddenly and shockingly informed me that he was suppressing this essay. Instead of receiving the promised fee of $3,200 for thirty-two printed pages, he offered a kill fee of only $500, which was certainly not adequate compensation for two months' work. If an editor rejects an article, he must do so when it's submitted and not after it's been commissioned, accepted, praised, contracted, and gone into printed proofs. I sent a fiery letter about this outrage to officials at the University of Virginia, to all the members of the editorial board, and to many of my writer friends. Robert BIy replied, for example, "This is a shocking letter and a horrendous story." But I never got more than $500 and Genoways, anyways, continued his unethical practices. On September 10, 2010, the New York Times reported that Genoways had become alienated from his staff, who repeatedly complained about his frequent absences and negligent attitude. When the managing editor committed suicide, the university cancelled the winter issue and closed the office until completing the investigation of the staff's complaints. Despite everything that's happened, Genoways is still the editor.
Even when a reviewer finds a congenial home, relations can be volatile. The New Criterion published thirty-six of my essays and reviews since 1991; they printed long enthusiastic reviews of my biographies: by Hilton Kramer on Edmund Wilson, by Anthony Daniels on Somerset Maugham, and by Pat Rogers on Samuel Johnson', and they recommended me to write an appreciation of Saul Bellow, just after his death, in the Wall Street Journal. The WSJ unexpectedly called me at 11 a.m., wanted 900 words by 1 p.m. and promised to pay double if I could do it. I said, "no problem," and did it. I fantasized later about what would happen if they called again at 11 a.m. and wanted 900 words on nuclear engineering by 1 p.m. If I said I knew absolutely nothing about the subject, they'd reply, "Okay, make it 1:30!" But timing doesn't always work out well. In the summer of 2006, without access to inside information, I sent in a review that predicted Orhan Pamuk would win the Nobel Prize. Forgetting that the Nobel was presented in December but announced in October, we planned to publish my essay in the New Criterion in November. By then, it was hopelessly anticlimactic and had to be withdrawn.
The New Criterion allowed William Tuttleton (whose only recent publication was a checklist of criticism on Washington Irving) to repeatedly attack my biographies while I was writing for the journal. Since Tuttleton clearly disliked my books, it seemed wrong to keep reviewing them, and the editors finally called off that persistent jackal. They published but did not allow me to answer the letter of the powerful and influential Roger Straus, who attacked my review of Lewis Dabney 's inept edition of Edmund Wilson's The Sixties, though Straus did not- and could not- refute any of my criticism. Though the New Criterion editors knew that Patrick French's authorized life of Naipaul was extremely critical of his character, they asked me to review that excellent book. They then rejected the review without an explanation and wouldn't allow me to revise. For whatever reason, they didn't want to risk offending Naipaul. Contributors are more expendable than famous (and famously touchy) writers. Though the New Criterion has become less literary and more political in recent years, and relations with editors are sometimes as difficult as writing about the books, I continue to write for that efficient and intelligent journal, and had a review of Monet in the issue of February 201 1.
The reviewer sometimes has to face a minefield on two fronts with both editors and authors. Though I try to be sympathetic, I also like to attack pretentious authors with inflated reputations. I was annoyed that timid reviewers praised Clive James's apparently intimidating Cultural Amnesia, which tried to encompass what he called "the whole range of a contemporary mind." This rambling book, filled with errors and self-indulgent repetition, had almost no structure or focus. It naively concluded, without the slightest evidence, that "the world is turning into one big liberal democracy," and willfully ignored the cruel and oppressive regimes in Belarus, Burma, Iran, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, and Zimbabwe. A friend warned me that the combative James would retaliate, but so far he's been quiescent.
When reviewing Bernard Crick's edition of Nineteen EightyFour, I found he was completely out of his depth as a literary critic. Long-winded, unbearably repetitious, he tediously reiterated dozens of points, and reading his turgid and sometimes senseless style felt like crawling through a swamp. Crick's annotations tended to be obvious, unconvincing, incomplete, or incorrect, with an astonishing number of mistakes in names, places, books, and quotations. In this "scholarly" edition, Clarendon Press, sleeping at the switch, abandoned its high standards and produced perhaps the worst book in its long history.
I still stand by two reviews I wrote long ago, in 1975 and 1980, which opposed the prevailing intellectual currents. Analyzing Literary Theory and Structure in the Lugano Review and condemning the opaque jargon of the poxy French import, I wrote: "A common ploy of the contributors is to invent or apply in a new context a critical term- Diachrony, Orphic, Hesperian- or even a formula: '[n<m<a] (where [<] means a harder cut),' in an attempt to increase the yield of the literary harvest. Though this learned and scholarly volume fields the first XI of the Yale English Department as well as other critical luminaries, it suffers from a kind of ingrown academic aridity and is intolerably dull. The emphasis on critical technique, which is no longer a mediator between reader and text, but merely a precious and pointless end in itself, suggests a serious malaise in the university and a reason why students are turning away from the study of English." James Clark, the former director of the University of California Press, told me that his greatest professional regret was publishing all those useless books on theory.
I may have been the only reviewer to point out the radical flaws and polemical distortions in Edward Said's Orientalism (1972), which tapped into the Zeitgeist, aroused Western guilt, and has been worshipped by uncritical readers ever since. In the Sewanee Review I said Said's book was "formless, repetitive, irritating, muddled and wrongheaded." It failed to "acknowledge the positive aspects of colonialism: administration, education, medicine, transportation and communications," which, along with the discovery of oil, brought the desert nomads of the Middle East into the modern world. If the West hadn't made archeological digs and written the history of the Near East, there would be no archeology and no history of that region. I concluded that Said "does not read literary texts- he reads into them" and deliberately misinterprets crucial works by Forster, Orwell, and T E. Lawrence.
Whenever egos and reputations are involved, authors can react with anger and aggression. When I wrote that James Jones's sexy wife, Gloria Mosolino (whom I met with him on the Greek island of Skiathos), came from "a criminal clan in Pottsville, Pennsylvania," I received a furious lawyer's letter from one of her relatives, who disclaimed all connection to the Mafia and threatened to sue me. Remembering that the drunken James Joyce, after getting into a fight with a rough guy in a Paris bar, used to summon his muscular drinking companion and say, "Deal with him, Hemingway, deal with him," I told the lawyer to deal with Frank MacShane, the author of Jones's biography, and with his publisher, Houghton Mifflin, who originated the potential libel.
An apparently innocuous passage in my review of John Mack's life of T. E. Lawrence, which won an undeserved Pulitzer Prize, provoked a storm of ranting and abusive letters, written during 1976-77, by Jeremy Wilson. Though I didn't even mention Wilson's name, he demanded a retraction and apology, insisted that the editor, Staige Blackford, resign, and threatened to sue for libel. In the Virginia Quarterly Review (Autumn 1976) I recalled: "When I was writing my literary study of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, I received permission from [T. E. 's brother] Arnold Lawrence to quote from the unpublished Oxford 1922 edition ofthat work, but the permission to quote from other manuscripts was withdrawn when I discussed Lawrence's homosexuality in my essay, 'Nietzsche and T. E. Lawrence,'" published by the University of Chicago Press in 1976. Though the University of Virginia's lawyers rejected Wilson's unbalanced assertions, he kept ranting on and on. I knew that Wilson was a fraud. He once arranged to meet me at his old college- Balliol, Oxford- and when I arrived, the office said that he was not a graduate and that they had never heard of him. I also knew that he was a crank, had no legal case or money to pursue it, and could not sue in British courts for a supposed libel in America. Wilson's letters were sent on Oxford University Press letterheads, with "Sir John Brown, General Publisher," and I could not resist putting a dart into the crazed bull by sending the following letter to Sir John in March 1977: "As you can see from the enclosed letter, someone seems to have stolen your stationery and used it to write crankish letters which reflect unfavorably on your name and on the Press. If you can trace the author, perhaps you might urge her to stop bothering serious scholars. I note that the new Oxford edition of Lawrence's letters was started as long ago as 1968. If it continues to stumble ahead at its present pace, I shall look forward to reviewing it at the end of the second millennium." In fact, Wilson never completed his edition of Lawrence's letters.
I like disputation in person and in writing, and there's plenty of this if you write negative reviews. Since the reviewer usually has the last word, it's unwise for an author to complain about an unfavorable notice. In the New Criterion (April 2007), I criticized Adam Sisman's The Friendship: Wordsworth and Coleridge for using only printed sources. In a letter of June 2009 he insisted that "the letters, manuscripts and notebooks of the Romantic poets have all been published" and, as a ludicrous parting shot, claimed I hadn't read his book carefully because I was too busy writing my own. In response, I listed thirteen archives with unpublished material about Wordsworth and Coleridge that Sisman had failed to consult.
Two of my reviews in the sober Bulletin of Bibliography (March 1989 and March 1987) provoked more serious retaliation than I 'd had from the angry Pennsylvania lawyer, the madcap Jeremy Wilson, and the plodding Adam Sisman. The two bibliographies were neither thorough nor accurate, and I listed several pages of errors and omissions. When evaluating Philip O'Brien's 724-page T. E. Lawrence: A Bibliography, I wrote that despite his "massive achievement, this bibliography has many limitations: it is careless, muddled and incomplete." It suffered from "minor flaws, significant errors, methodological weaknesses and major problems." O'Brien's revised and expanded 894page edition was, if possible, even worse. In the Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America (March 2002), I found it incredible that the first edition of this woefully inadequate book won the Besterman medal for the best bibliography published in Britain in 1988. The clueless judges, mightily impressed by the bulk of the book, clearly knew nothing at all about T. E. Lawrence. O'Brien retaliated in a petty fashion by telling scholars that I was no longer interested in Lawrence and should not be invited to conferences about him. My absence would allow O'Brien to strut his hour upon the stage. By that time, however, I'd left academic life and stopped attending scholarly meetings. Now, as Robert Frost remarked, "I only go if I 'm the show."
Randall Jarrell, known for his caustic tongue and pen, wrote that reviewing bad books had goaded him into saying almost anything. In my review of Stuart Wright's bibliography of Jarrell, I wrote that "the number of typographical and transcription errors is astonishing in a publication of the Bibliographical Society of Virginia" and listed three paragraphs of mistakes. Instead of correcting his errors, Wright retaliated by warning me to "be on the lookout for my review of your Lowell book," Manic Power: Robert Lowell and His Circle, in the illfated Sewanee Review. When Wright's wrong review appeared, I sent a copy of his letter to my old adversary George Core and told him: "I thought that as an experienced editor you would have been alerted by the excessive vituperation, the hysterical tone, and the personal bias and bile in the review. Wright threatened to get even by reviewing Manic Power, used Sewanee to do this and duped you with his distortions, misstatements and lies. I would hope, after seeing Wright's letter, that you will exclude him from your pages and alert other editors to his pernicious mode of reviewing." Not well pleased to be deceived in this way, Core did not respond or apologize for publishing the vindictive review.
Showing a review to anyone before it appears risks the theft of your ideas. When I first started out, a well-established senior professor stole my explanation of Orwell's strange friendship with Henry Miller and published it under his own name. Though the quickest way to end a friendship is to publish a negative review, Phillip Knightley, whom I met on a tennis court in Spain, didn't seem to mind my criticism of his tremendously successful The Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia. He insouciantly brushed off my remarks, as if they were irritating insects, and became a close and generous friend.
I had praised The Rack, a marvelous novel by A. E. Ellis, but when I contacted him he was angry that I had not praised him enough. I was also shocked to discover, during my strangest and most painful quarrel, that I could lose a good friend by publishing positive reviews of two of his books in both America and England. The distinguished older poet asked to see the review before it appeared in print and, against my better judgment, I sent it to him. Instead of being pleased, as I expected, he asked me to add (absurdly, I thought) that Eudora Welty had praised his work and that a university press should bring out an edition of his collected poems. I told him, as gently as possible, that it was too late to change anything and, in any case, that it was wrong of him to ask me and to think I would obey his orders. He then became enraged, shouted "God damn you and fuck you, I'll never have anything to do with you again," and slammed down the phone. Though he soon apologized for his "vulgar and self-humiliating expression," I didn't see how our friendship could possibly continue.
Despite all the problems and quarrels, reviews provide more immediate gratification than articles and books. They are shorter, can be completed more quickly and published more promptly. l 've been asked to write several reviews on art and literature in the coming months, love this work, and can't wait to get my hands on the new books.
Jeffrey Meyers, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, has recently published Samuel Johnson: The Struggle (2008), The Genius and the Goddess: Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe (2009), George Orwell: Life and Art (2010) - his fifth work on Orwell - and John Huston: Courage and Art (2011). Thirty of his books have been translated into fourteen languages and published on six continents.