current issue archive message boards search
Current Features
NASCAR Spins Out
Harlequin Goes Gritty For Growth
Crossing the Pond
Cult of Bloomberg
Everyone's a Critic
One Publisher's Taxing Crusade
Publish Thyself!
Journal Gyrations
Current Issue
Recent Headlines
Books Boutique
Reader Feedback
Search Brill's Content

current issue
June 2001

June 2001
Everyone's a Critic
Reflecting on the wildly disparate reviews of his recent book, the author ponders our chaotic literary culture -- and wonders what happened to criticism as literature.


Book The reviews are in -- most of them, anyway. I'll still be able to browse through Partisan Review or Salmagundi for the next few months and stumble upon tardy notices of my biography of Saul Bellow, published last October; but the main organs of opinion -- The New York Times Book Review and other weekly book supplements affiliated with newspapers around the country, the daily Times, Time magazine, The Wall Street Journal, the fashion glossies (GQ, Vogue, Elle) -- have all weighed in, along with the electronic media outlets that have sprung up since I last published a book: Slate, Salon, Thanks to (which is affiliated with this magazine), I was even able to track the media response on its "Critical Reaction" chart. (My rank, based on assigning the reviews a number from 1 to 10 and then computing the average, is 6.8: not bad.) And the indispensable Arts & Letters Daily website made it possible to point and click my way through newspapers and magazines for reviews from around the world.

So what's the bottom line? The critical response was "uniform," according to Slate's Eliza Truitt, wrapping the whole thing up in the "Summary Judgment" column, a weekly survey of reviews. Truitt cited John Leonard's generous assessment in his cover piece in The New York Times Book Review: "I could no more stop reading [Atlas's] biography than I could stop reading Saul Bellow after he blew the blinds off the windows in my head." It would have been nice -- for me -- if all the critics had agreed with him: In fact, their response was anything but uniform. Within days of the initial outburst of enthusiasm -- raves in The Economist and The New York Observer, a warm review in The Boston Globe -- I was inundated by a revisionist wave. First James Wood, in The New Republic, delivered himself of an 8,000-word outcry, the tone of which could be discerned from the headline on the cover: "Bellow Defeats His Biographer." The same week brought Richard Poirier's equally lengthy and equally vituperative essay/review in the London Review of Books, paired with a hatchet job on my English colleague Richard Holmes under the title "The Corruption of Literary Biography." (At least I was in good company.) Stephen Moss, a literary columnist for The Guardian, summed up the bottom line: "Frankly, I give up," he declared. "This column attempts to make sense of the critical reception given to new books. In the case of James Atlas's long-awaited biography of Saul Bellow, that is almost impossible. The reviews were not just discordant, they were flatly contradictory: while some hailed a masterpiece, others castigated a piece of muck-raking." About the only thing the critics agreed upon was that it was "long-awaited." In other words, there is no bottom line.

What to make of this plethora of judgments? You could ascribe it to the book's controversial nature: It was tough on aspects of Bellow's character, was opinionated about his work, and chronicled dark episodes in the personal life of a subject who is still living. How could everyone agree? But I think the dissonant verdict says something else: that we inhabit a chaotic literary culture, one lacking in critics around whom a cohesive readership can rally and in publications with a strong point of view -- lacking, in a word, authority. Is it my imagination, or was there a time when you could publish a book and count on eliciting commentary that had a voice of its own -- that not only evaluated the work but used the occasion to range over wider issues and forced a reconsideration of the author's oeuvre? The book review as literature: a minor genre, perhaps, but it did once exist.

Among the books I pull off my shelf with the greatest frequency are collections of reviews: The Good Word, by Wilfrid Sheed, consisting of pieces he wrote for The New York Times Book Review; An Age of Enormity, an anthology of essays and reviews by Isaac Rosenfeld, a prominent critic in the 1940s and 1950s; and the three volumes of Edmund Wilson's miscellaneous reviews from several decades -- Classics and Commercials, The Shores of Light, and The Bit Between My Teeth. Why do I like to leaf through these books, stopping to reacquaint myself with Sheed's tart views on Cyril Connolly, another master practitioner of the trade ("for him to have made book reviewing his final career seems a culminating act of self-degradation"); Rosenfeld's assessment of Henry Miller ("always on a perpetual holiday from taste"); Wilson's evaluations of almost anyone I care to look up in the index (Anthony Powell is deemed "just entertaining enough to read in bed late at night in summer")? They're pithy, stylishly written, and full of information; they entertain and instruct, often in the space of a thousand words. And -- this is key -- they have a strong point of view, informed by depth of reading; a distinctive voice sustained through many books in various genres; and a willingness to place the work under review within a larger context. In short, they do all a book review is supposed to do.

What happened to this tangential but necessary form? Wilson and Sheed harked back to a tradition whose prototype made its appearance toward the end of the 18th century; Dr. Johnson was a reader of the Critical, whose reviewers, he noted approvingly, knew how to "lay hold of a topic, and write chiefly from their own minds." The Edinburgh Review, founded in 1802, and Blackwood's, which arrived on the scene 15 years later, introduced to the culture the notion of the essay/review, a kind of generalized literary discourse that ranged widely over history, politics, and the issues of the day while purporting to review the book at hand. It was in this period, writes John Gross in his classic The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, that the review "emerged as a really powerful institution, a major social force."

If there was a "first reviewer," it would have to be Francis Jeffrey, the principal editor of the Edinburgh from its founding through the 1840s. Jeffrey is chiefly remembered now for having pronounced of Wordsworth's long poem The Excursion: "This will never do." But that wasn't all he did. For Jeffrey and his colleagues, notably Lord Macaulay and the voluble essayist Thomas Carlyle, a review was a literary occasion; their job was -- in Gross's words -- "to inform as well as to stimulate." And so it was, in both England and America (The Atlantic Monthly under the stewardship of William Dean Howells was a must-read), throughout the beginning of the 20th century. The modernist revolution was carried on as tirelessly in the London weeklies and monthlies as in the books that defined it: T.S. Eliot advanced his ideas in his own journal, The Criterion; Virginia Woolf produced brilliant, idiosyncratic reviews for the Times Literary Supplement. A few decades later, Partisan Review, the house organ of the New York intellectuals, consolidated this revolution by explaining its consequences to its small but influential audience.

It is the habit of every age to idealize the age before it. But even a casual survey of reviewing reveals it to have been, within living memory, a robust enterprise. In 1954, Malcolm Cowley, writing in The Literary Situation, remarked on the general improvement of his métier. "Now the reviewers are much older on the average," he wrote; "they are paid at somewhat higher rates, and they seem to feel that they will be additionally rewarded for brilliant work, that they will be admired by their friends and will earn better positions in the literary, publishing, or academic worlds." The decades from the 1930s through the 1950s were a golden era of reviewing. When Delmore Schwartz published his first book of poems, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, in 1938, it was reviewed by R.P. Blackmur and F.W. Dupee, two major critics of the period. Bellow's first novel, Dangling Man, published in 1944, was reviewed by Edmund Wilson; his second, published three years later, was reviewed by Elizabeth Hardwick and Diana Trilling. Even the book pages of the middlebrow Time were once staffed by heavyweight critics like Irving Howe, Robert Fitzgerald, and James Agee.

Of course, literary situations -- like all situations -- are subject to change. Twenty years after Cowley's cheery assessment of the reviewing game, Sheed was lamenting the marginality of the enterprise; the reviewer, he noted in a 1973 essay called "The Art of Reviewing," was a fossil, "warming himself by his twig fire and trying to feel his work is important." How to account for this diminution in stature? Sheed didn't have any answers, so let me grope to supply a few. To begin with, literary journals lost their centrality as the culture that had supported them dispersed to universities (the new sanctum of high culture) and journalism (the new watering hole of low culture). The public intellectual, the man of letters, the freelance critic -- all were driven out of business by social conditions beyond their control: inflated real estate prices in New York, the rise of mass entertainment, the expansion of higher education. Commentary, Partisan Review, and a handful of other highbrow journals -- the so-called little magazines -- were no longer the sole arbiters of opinion; the audience for serious books could read the newsweeklies, the middlebrow monthlies, even their local newspapers for consumer guidance, if not always for sophisticated critical judgment.

And so it remains today. Coverage of books is almost too plentiful. Every Monday the mail brings The New Yorker, New York magazine, Publishers Weekly, the upcoming Sunday's New York Times Book Review, and the (London) Times Literary Supplement. Once a month you have to add in Vanity Fair, Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly -- and now Talk. Twice a month (with time off for Christmas and summer vacations), The New York Review of Books arrives. And that's just print. Charlie Rose is one of our chief arbiters of taste -- to get on his show is the equivalent of being chosen as a Book-of-the-Month Club Main Selection 40 years ago. Brian Lamb on C-SPAN and Terry Gross's Fresh Air program on National Public Radio sell more copies than Edmund Wilson ever did writing in the pages of The New Yorker. New York is still "the center of the culture business," as Bellow disparagingly referred to it in an essay called "Skepticism and the Depth of Life," but it's a center that contains multitudes.

What about The New York Times Book Review? As a writer and publisher, I feel like the Tin Man cowering before the Wizard of Oz, but I have to say something. The bible of the book trade, the Times Book Review reaches a good part of America's book-buying public and can therefore be said to have a singular, monolithic influence; what it says goes. The writer awaiting a review of his book suffers the butterflies of a gladiator squinting at the emperor's box for a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. But its influence is as much commercial as critical and always has been. The Book Review brings news of books; its voice is pluralistic.

Critics, then, are numerous; critics I'd call definitive -- generalists, educated and versatile writers capable of writing with equal ease and authority on history, literature, politics -- are few: Joan Didion, Garry Wills, Stanley Crouch, Robert Hughes, Gore Vidal; in England Clive James and Julian Barnes. Among novelists, John Updike and Tom Wolfe can be counted on to speak their minds; Francine Prose and Jane Smiley have both recently tossed essay-length grenades at the contemporary literary scene from the trenches of Harper's, and you could practically feel the reverberations. But most of our top novelists don't review -- and when they do, they steer clear of books they don't like. John Irving and Joyce Carol Oates won't write negative reviews as a matter of principle (and who can blame them?). "I don't review a book that I don't have anything good to say about," Oates told me. "I write to recommend books." Irving once wrote me an eloquent letter about why he reviewed only books he liked: "I won't wreck my voice with that bitchy tone we all employ when something doesn't wholly please us." Sheed, a veteran reviewer who hung up his gloves quite a few years ago, says, "Once you've been kicked around a few times yourself, it's hard to see what good it does to kick around someone else."

Having myself both taken it and dished it out over the years, drawing blood with abandon in my early reviewing days and getting bloodied later on (is there a correlation here?), I see their point. On the other hand, I mind hostility less than equivocation. In a recent essay in The New York Times Book Review, "Remember When Books Mattered?" Walter Kirn derided the timidity of reviewers: "The sound of much reviewing nowadays is the sound of one hand clapping -- of literature gently patting its own back, sometimes in praise and sometimes in reproach, for fear of breaking something." As far as Kirn is concerned, reviewers are too nice: "If readers are under the impression lately that nothing much is going on in literature other than what they see on Oprah, perhaps it's because the American salon is so suffocatingly hushed and well-mannered." Well, sort of: If you've ever had the snarling fangs of Washington Post book editor Jonathan Yardley buried in your ankle or been roughed up by the outwardly mild but unpredictably bristling Sven Birkerts, one of our most prolific freelancers, you might long for a little civility. But at least they provide a lively read.

It's not as if there's a right answer -- or even a reliable one. The vicissitudes of literary discrimination are amply documented in Books of the Century, an instructive anthology of reviews from the last hundred years of The New York Times Book Review compiled by the Book Review's current editor, Charles McGrath. The collection contains a running feature -- under the charming rubric "Oops!" -- of classics that were panned in its pages ("Catch-22 has much passion, comic and fervent, but it gasps for want of craft and sensibility"). In his introduction, McGrath notes, "Tastes alter...critics are fallible."

Fine, as long as we know who they are. When Norman Mailer wrote a famous essay, "Quick and Expensive Comments on the Talent in the Room," spitefully assessing his contemporaries, it wasn't a difficult task to factor in Mailer's biases. That he was competitive, rancorous, petty -- all this the reader knew. He was Norman Mailer. Now I don't always know who's judging me -- or why. And there are so many! Instead of having to brood over a dozen reviews, I have to brood over a hundred. Keith Gessen, "Feed's book columnist," will you please step forward and identify yourself?

Every morning now I log on to, not only to check my book's numerical rank -- every writer in America does this -- but to see if there are any new customer reviews. This is one of my favorite Amazon features; customers from all over the world e-mail their reviews, accompanied by a rating, like a restaurant critic, awarding from one to five stars. Today I get a fresh opinion: "Very bogus!" writes "a reader from Louisville," granting me a lone star.

Bummer. Seeking to reassure myself, I scroll down through earlier reviews posted by readers. Quite a few five-stars,

I see. "An extraordinary achievement";

"A singularly important and inspiring book." Phew.

I print out the new Amazon dispatch and stash it in the bulging file labeled "Bellow reviews," alongside recent notices from Harper's ("startlingly deficient") and The New Criterion ("intelligent and perceptive"). Oh, and here's one from The American Scholar that manages to give both sides in the space of a single review: "something of a disappointment," writes a professor named Sanford Pinsker in his opening sentence; and then, a few paragraphs on, just as the sting -- like a flu shot -- is beginning to fade, Pinsker decides that Bellow is "a distinguished and important work."

BUY books at 25% below retail prices.
READ (for free) lively commentary from leading opinion makers, cultural figures and book experts.


Spend $25 on anything at Contentville and get a free subscription to Brill's Content magazine, plus a membership in the Citizens' Club, which gives you a 5% discount off already-low prices. Shop NOW and get your FREE subscription! more info

DISCUSS this article on the message boards.
a letter to the editor.
READ recent feedback.

Free Brill's Content
Email Newsletter

Brill's Content Home | Current Issue | Books Boutique | |
| | Sitemap | Press Releases | Contact

© Brill Media Ventures, 2001