Reviewing the Book Review
Halfway through “Lolita,” Humbert Humbert — relaxed, triumphant and a mere pinch of pages away from his downfall — stops to extol the wonders of America. He has dragged his 12-year-old quarry on a road trip across the country, a perversion of a honeymoon. He slips into French to marvel at all they have seen. “Nous connûmes,” he purrs, borrowing “a Flaubertian intonation” — we came to know — and enumerates each guesthouse and motel, each unsmiling landlady.
Nous connûmes — we came to know. It has felt like the mood of the moment, with the reappraisal of monuments, real and metaphorical, in our midst — writers included. There have been fresh considerations of Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, David Foster Wallace and others, as their private papers and private lives have come to light. Nous connûmes Nabokov himself; this past year brought forth a swarm of studies and, in March, an anthology dedicated to “Lolita” alone. The morality of the novel, and of its creator, are litigated with hot urgency, as if Nabokov, dead some 40 years, lingers in the dock somewhere.
Not a surprising moment, then, to be asked to explore the archives of The New York Times Book Review on the occasion of its 125th anniversary, a moment for celebration but also for some more challenging introspection, a moment to examine the publication’s legacy in full. My brief, you could say, was to review the Book Review, to consider the coverage of “women, people of color, L.G.B.T.Q. writers” and changing mores in criticism. But what revelatory news could I possibly bring? The word “archive” derives from the ancient Greek arkheion, sometimes translated as “house of the ruler.” Who wanders there with any illusions?
What could those reviews contain? Some misjudgments, to be sure — masterpieces misunderstood in their time. A few preternaturally sensitive assessments. Fluorescent condescension and stereotype. Above all, the pleasant and dubious satisfactions of feeling superior to the past.
And yet. In recent years, The Times has faced scrutiny of the racial and gender imbalance in its reviews. One survey, which looked at nearly 750 books assessed by The Times in 2011, across all genres, found that nearly 90 percent of the authors assessed were white. But what about the reviews themselves: the language, the criteria? When “women, people of color, L.G.B.T.Q. writers” were reviewed, how was their work positioned? What patterns can we trace, what consequences? And what do we do with this knowledge — how can it be made useful? When we come to know, what do we really see?
To wander through 125 years of book reviews is to endure assault by adjective. All the fatuous books, the frequently brilliant, the disappointing, the essential. The adjectives one only ever encounters in a review (indelible, risible), the archaic descriptors (sumptuous). So many masterpieces, so many duds — now enjoying quiet anonymity.
What did I find? Those misjudged masterpieces — on Dreiser’s “Sister Carrie”: “It is a book one can very well get along without reading.” The sensitive assessments — consistently by the critic and former editor of the Book Review, John Leonard, an early and forceful champion of writers like Toni Morrison, John Edgar Wideman and Grace Paley. Fluorescent condescension and stereotype — on N. Scott Momaday’s “House Made of Dawn,” which went on to win the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for fiction: “American Indians do not write novels and poetry as a rule or teach English in top-ranking universities either. But we cannot be patronizing.” Oh, no?
The inaugural issue of the Book Review was published in 1896. It featured 10 reviews, all unsigned, along with lists of new books and literary happenings. An essay in the form of an imaginary conversation poked fun at novelists’ stock phrases. On Laurence Sterne: “that ‘shorn lamb’ of his has been pulled hither and thither enough to be the toughest jerk mutton in the world.”
Since 1924, the Book Review has run bylines. Contributors are not, for the most part, professional critics (a vanishing breed) but what Ford Madox Ford called “artist-practitioners” — the moonlighting novelist or specialist. Curiously, many seem to speak in one voice throughout the years, with that signature, seignorial remove.
That tone isn’t merely a function of the rhythms of the short review; it flows from the house style. Reviewers almost never use “I,” long discouraged by the paper, but the magisterial “we.” What flaws did “we” discover in this slight but promising novel? Why do “we” go to fiction? (This last example from my — our? — own work.)
“We” can be a coercive little word. A forced embrace, a leash. It’s Humbert’s pronoun — “nous” — his way of speaking for Lolita. It presumes consensus; it presumes that “we” are the same. Margo Jefferson, a former book critic at The Times, has spoken about the peculiarity of the convention. “‘We’ meant that our readers were our students and our followers,” she said. “It implied we were omniscient narrators, leading them toward the best, the wisest, the most educated conclusions.”
How unselfconsciously, how affectionately, that notion of consensus was once assumed — and inscribed. How specifically the reader of the Book Review was imagined and catered to. In a summer reading column in 1915, the Book Review recommended titles for the “intellectual enjoyment that appeals to the ‘the tired business man’ on holiday.”
As I reached midcentury in the archives, I kept bumping into one particular reviewer with a plump, paternalistic style and the Dickensian name of Marshall Sprague.
Sprague! I’d innocently turn a corner and find you back at it, comparing a woman writer to a trout — as praise.
His own best-known book — a study of the frontier (what else?) — was titled “A Gallery of Dudes,” a fair description of these pages at the time. (A moment to appreciate the obituary of Francis Whiting Halsey, the Book Review’s first editor, whose death in 1919 was presented as a sort of apotheosis of literary masculinity: “Overwork on a 10-volume history of the European War contributed to his last illness.”) It was a clubby world put into a panic by the success of “the lit’ry lady,” as a 1907 article termed her. Early issues of the Book Review were lively with alarm. Why are Women Using Male Pseudonyms? How Dare Women Write from the Point of View of Male Characters? Why are Women’s Books Selling So Well? “Is Woman Crowding Out Man From the Field of Fiction?”
The suave “we” would not yet accommodate women, or others, and the reviewer acted as sentry, patrolling the pronoun’s borders. For years the novelist Anthony Burgess, chief fiction reviewer of The Observer in London, was said to decide which women would be permitted to leave the “ghetto” of female writing. The longtime Times staff critic Orville Prescott enjoyed prerogatives of his own. (The paper’s staff critics, of which I am now one, operate independently of the weekly Book Review.) In 1948, Prescott dismissed Gore Vidal’s novel “The City and the Pillar” as “pornography” — an odd claim given the lack of sex in the book. I suspect that what Prescott really found so objectionable was the absence of shame in a love story between two men. Meanwhile, in the Book Review, C.V. Terry took a different view, but no less ugly: “A novel as sterile as its protagonist.” Vidal and his publishers claimed that the Book Review refused to run paid advertisements and had him blacklisted for years.
Truman Capote’s Southern Gothic “Other Voices, Other Rooms” was published that same month, and featured that famous author photograph: young Capote, lovely and sulky, splayed across the back jacket, making the kind of eye contact that can still make you flush, some 70 years on. Carlos Baker’s review was an extended shudder. “The story,” he wrote, “did not need to be told, except to get it out of the author’s system.”
Note that language. It reappears in the reviews of the interlopers — the nonwhite writers, women writers and especially L.G.B.T.Q. writers. Their books are not written, they are not crafted— they are expelled, they are excreted, almost involuntarily. James Purdy’s work — his “homosexual fiction” (this from a Wilfrid Sheed review) — represented “the sick outpouring of a confused, adolescent, distraught mind” (that from Prescott). Katherine Anne Porter’s work received a clinical and distressing diagnosis: “The pellucid trickle has lately clouded.” The charge can be twisted into a form of perverse praise, as if writing were a sort of bodily instinct. In a review of “Dust Tracks on a Road,” John Chamberlain wrote that the “saucy, defiant” Zora Neale Hurston was “born with a tongue in her head, and she has never failed to use it.”
Where Black writers are concerned, another pattern can be detected. Reviewers might impute cultural importance to the work, but aesthetic significance only rarely. And if aesthetic significance was conferred, it often hinged on one particular quality: authenticity. The convention was so pronounced that a writer named Elizabeth Brown addressed it in her 1932 review of Countee Cullen’s stinging satire “One Way to Heaven.” “Most of us have not yet reached the stage where we can appreciate any story about colored people at its face value without always straining to find in it some sort of presentation of ‘Negro life,’” Brown wrote. “It is, therefore, from one who frankly knows little about the subject, an impertinence to say that Mr. Cullen paints a convincing picture of life in Harlem but one can at least say that the picture is sometimes amusing, sometimes very moving, and at all times interesting.”
That presumption — that the work of the Black writer was always coded autobiography, and only coded autobiography — was so entrenched, it feels startling to see the Black novelist praised purely for technique and inventiveness, to see an artistic lineage located, as in Wright Morris’s review of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” which named Ellison as a descendant of Virgil and Dante.
Authenticity was valued up to the point it contravened the (white) critic’s notions of Black life. In his review of James Weldon Johnson’s novel, “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man,” Charles Willis Thompson, an op-ed writer for The Times and frequent reviewer, objected to Johnson’s depiction of a lynching as an ordinary affair, attended by familiar figures and recognizable types. The author “knows more about such cases than I do,” Willis concedes — Johnson worked as an anti-lynching advocate for the N.A.A.C.P — but smoothly sails on. “I have never seen a lynching, but I have talked to many who have and they all tell me that the lynchers are the toughs and riff-raff of the community.” Furthermore: “I have seen lynchers after the event, and they verify this description.”
I can hear the muttered objections. Times were different. How crude, how predictably “woke” to apply present-day standards to the past. But I’m not referring to just the real relics, many of which provoke more amused incredulity than offense. (My particular favorite is an agitated essay from 1900 in which a “Mrs. Sherwood” inveighs against the fashion for heroines who smoke and befoul their fragrant feminine breath: “the sweet south wind over a bank of violets.”)
To dismiss these reviews as mere fossils requires a series of awkward and dishonest contortions. Reviewers like Sheed and Prescott might have handled the work of gay writers with tongs, but the public didn’t. “The City and the Pillar” and “Other Voices, Other Rooms” both made the Times best-seller list. And if these judgments were simply a matter of their times, would it make sense for Zora Neale Hurston to sound quite so exasperated in 1950? “It is assumed that all non-Anglo-Saxons are uncomplicated stereotypes,” she wrote in an essay titled “What White Publishers Won’t Print.” “They are lay figures mounted in the museum where all may take them in at a glance. They are made of bent wires without insides at all. So how could anybody write a book about the nonexistent?”
To my mind, the most persuasive evidence against treating such reviews as irrelevant artifacts is the letters to the editor. If the critic assumes (or imposes) consensus with that peremptory “we,” in the letters, we see the reader recoil. “We” who?
In 1974, the writer Rebecca West excoriated “Conundrum,” Jan Morris’s landmark memoir about her gender transition. Throughout, West refers to Morris as “Mr. Morris” — “one feels sure she is not a woman.” West scorned the fact that Morris had transitioned as an older woman: “a woman who has had the equivalent of a hysterectomy, one who cannot offer the same facilities for love-making as a woman who was born a woman. And having changed sex so late in life, she is unlikely to attract the men that, earlier, would have made good husbands or lovers.” To top it off, she objected to the “spirit of passionate advocacy,” with which Morris wrote, as if “he [sic] had had to make the change from man to woman against a host of opposition.” Surely not.
The responses were scathing. How could West pronounce upon the validity of Morris’s sense of herself as a woman? How could she reject emotions she had not felt? “If this were an account of the first Everest ascent, should a reviewer doubt its honesty simply because no one had ever climbed the mountain before?” one reader asked. “Or, more to the point, because the reviewer had never wanted to himself?” Another reader, recuperating at home from a hysterectomy, wrote in furious solidarity with Morris: “I expect to have just as good a relationship now as formerly, and in fact, am waiting impatiently for my doctor’s OK to go ahead.”
But reviewers like West weren’t firing off these broadsides from their desks unsolicited. These reviews were commissioned; they passed through multiple layers of editing. West’s views on gender were far from a mystery. Christopher Hitchens would memorably describe her feminism as “above all concerned with the respect for, and the preservation of, true masculinity.” A strange assignment, to say the least.
Perhaps not. In recent years, the paper has been grappling with its history of reporting on L.G.B.T.Q. issues, especially during the height of the AIDS epidemic. According to the paper’s former executive editor Max Frankel, the longtime publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger instructed The Times to avoid the subject of gay life as much as possible. The stylebook did not allow the word “gay” to be used until 1987; the preference was for the clinical “homosexual.”
How can one cover — let alone judge — what one refuses to see? What one is institutionally mandated to ignore?
There’s a Jasper Johns sculpture called “The Critic Sees.” It features a pair of round-rimmed glasses. Where one expects two eyes are two open mouths instead, in mid-pronouncement.
It was 1981, and Toni Morrison was lonely. Not for readers or praise — she’d written four acclaimed books by then; her readership was wide and admiring. “My complaint about letters now would be the state of criticism,” she said in an interview. “I have yet to read criticism that understands my work or is prepared to understand it. I don’t care if the critic likes or dislikes it. I would just like to feel less isolated.”
The relaxed, reflexive contempt of reviews of the past cannot be disentangled from their failures as pieces of criticism. They might stand in harsh judgment of the writer, but as examples of writing they’re soft. They rarely quote the book, or offer more than perfunctory summary. We hear little of style, of argument or technique. I’m reminded of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 18th-century play “The Critic,” which features two malicious critics, named Dangle and Sneer. That’s what these pieces do. They hover and mock, or patronize, the reviewer keeping his hands in his pockets all the while. He builds no case — he feels no need; the identity of the writer, the source of that obsessive fascination, appears to be all the evidence required for his scorn.
The opposite of “dangle and sneer” isn’t “genuflect and revere.” It’s the work of vigorous reading, of research, curiosity, the capacity for surprise — criticism, in short. In a 2006 interview, Maxine Hong Kingston pined for “better criticism” — not kinder reviews: “I don’t mean they praise my work more, I mean that they understand what the work is about and there is more willingness now to read a book by a minority person and to criticize it as literature and not just see it as anthropology.”
In time, one begins to see calls for this kind of coverage in the Book Review itself. The section becomes self-reflective, critiquing a literary culture it had a powerful hand in creating. We see Bharati Mukherjee’s 1988 front-page essay on immigrant fiction, in which she questioned the racial underpinnings of the fashion for literary minimalism. Meg Wolitzer’s 2012 essay “The Second Shelf” asked why women’s literary fiction is taken less seriously than men’s, why women are derided for the narrowness of their subjects but punished if they take risks. If “a woman writes a doorstop filled with free associations about life and love and childbirth and war, and jokes and recipes and maybe even a novel-within-a-novel,” Wolitzer wrote, “she risks being labeled undisciplined and self-indulgent.”
A ghostly feeling settled over me as I read this essay. I’d seen the reviews Wolitzer was referring to — not just of her contemporaries but of generations past, that long, ignoble lineage. The contributor who, in 1905, sniffed that the woman writer would always paint on a small canvas, ask the small questions; his descendant in 2001 who berated a novelist for squandering ambitious experimental techniques on the deeply undeserving subject of a young girl’s coming-of-age story. Another prickly feeling followed — that I’ve been reading writers who’d produced the very book Wolitzer imagined, as if they’d absorbed her piece. I think of Lucy Ellmann, who also contributed to the Book Review around that time. In 2019, she published “Ducks, Newburyport,” a thousand-page doorstop — all in one sentence, no less — about “life and love and childbirth and war, and jokes and recipes” (and a mountain lion). The novel won awards, raves; no one that I recall accused it of indulgence. The review or essay written in protest doesn’t merely seed the work of the future; it can clear a path for its reception, creating the vocabulary and terms by which it will be received.
My copy of “Lolita” is all foxed pages and spindly spine, battered and beloved. It’s my mother’s old copy and still bears traces of her cigarette ash. Looking at the passage again now, I understand for the first time, shame-facedly, its irony. Humbert boasts of all he has seen, but what does it amount to but a few squalid motel rooms, variations in bathroom tile? “Nous connûmes” nothing. It’s the very story of the novel — all that Humbert refuses to see about the girl he calls Lolita, about himself.
To look at the past is to look, for the most part, at what can be seen, what can be assessed. The number of women reviewed in an issue, the cruel jokes. I’m haunted by what cannot be quantified, what cannot be known — the long legacies of the language in the reviews, and how they creep into the present. How “reckonings” pass for restitution. I’m haunted by the notion of jettisoned novels and aborted careers — of novelists but also would-be reviewers. See, I know something of how language can be used to thwart and intimidate, about worlds so closed they awaken the great, self-preserving question: Why bother?
But bother I did; bother I do. In part because criticism, when I came to it, felt like freedom. The critics I first loved spoke with a note of defiant truthfulness; they were impatient with cliché, puffery and scolds, contemptuous of anxious gatekeeping. I’m not referring to academic critics but regular reviewers, whose only credentials were nerve, wariness and style. V.S. Pritchett, Anatole Broyard, Randall Jarrell, Elizabeth Hardwick, Margo Jefferson. They were so often transplants, immigrants, drop-outs. Their notion of “we” was expansive and frequently full of playful provocation.
There are old, imperishable debates about whether criticism is itself an art form (depends who’s doing it, I say). What cannot be in doubt is that criticism is itself a form of mythmaking, itself a story. And like any other story, it ought to withstand scrutiny, both of itself and what it purports to protect — for the desires of criticism and literature lie tangled together. “Stanley Elkin says you need great literature to have great criticism,” Morrison once said. “I think it works the other way around. If there were better criticism, there would be better books.”
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