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Reviewing the Book Review

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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.”)


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