Article — From the October 1959 issue
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It is with dismay that one decides the malaise of the popular reviewing publications — the Times and Tribune and the Saturday Review — is not always to be laid at the door of commerce. It had been simple and reassuring to believe the pressure of book publishers and booksellers accounted for the hospitable reception of trashy novels, commonplace “think” books, and so on. The publishers needed favorable reviews to use for the display of their product, as an Easter basket needs shredded green paper under the eggs. No one thought the pressure was simple and direct; it was imagined to be subtle, practical, basic, that is, having to do with the fact that the advertisements of the publishing business keep the book-review sections going financially. This explanation has, naturally, had an exaggerated acceptance.
The truth is, one imagines, that the publishers — seeing their best and their least products received with a uniform equanimity — must be aware that the drama of the book world is being slowly, painlessly killed. Everything is somehow alike, whether it be a routine work of history by a respectable academic, a group of platitudes from the Pentagon, a volume of verse, a work of radical ideas, a work of conservative ideas. Simple “coverage” seems to have won out over the drama of opinion; “readability,” a cozy little word, has taken the place of the old-fashioned requirement of a good, clear prose style, which is something else. All differences of excellence, of position, of form are blurred by the slumberous acceptance. The blur erases good and bad alike, the conventional and the odd, so that it finally appears that the author like the reviewer really does not have a position. The reviewer’s grace falls upon the rich and the poor alike; a work which is going to be a best seller, in which the publishers have sunk their fortune, is commended only at greater length than the book from which the publishers hardly expect to break even. In this fashion there is a sort of democratic euphoria that may do the light book a service but will hardly meet the needs of a serious work. When a book is rebuked, the rebuke is usually nothing more than a quick little jab with the needle, administered in the midst of therapeutic compliments. “— — is sometimes self-consciously arch,” said one review. “But it contains enough of — —’s famous wit and style to make American publication worthwhile. . . .”
The editors of the reviewing publications no longer seem to be engaged in literature. Books pile up, out they go, and in comes the review. Many distinguished minds give their names to various long and short articles in the Times, Tribune, and Saturday Review. The wares offered by the better writers are apt, frequently, to be something less than their best. Having awakened to so many gloomy Sundays, they accept their assignments in a co-operative spirit and return a “readable” piece, nothing much, of course. (Alice James wrote in her diary that her brother, Henry, was asked to write for the popular press and assured he could do anything he pleased “so long as there’s nothing literary in it.”)
The retention of certain disgruntled, repetitive commentators is alone enough to dispute notions of crude commercialism on the part of the reviewing publications. A businesslike editor, a “growing” organization — such as we are always reading about in the press — would have assessed the protests, if any, and put these fumbling minds out to pasture. For instance, what could be more tiresome than J. Donald Adams’s attacks on poor Lionel Trilling for trying to be interesting on Robert Frost? Only another attack on Adams, perhaps — who is, like the pressure of commerce, hardly the real trouble with the Times. Adams is like one of those public monuments only a stranger or someone who has been away for a while takes notice of. What is truly dismaying about the Times and Tribune is the quality of the editing.
Recently a small magazine called the Fifties published an interview with the editor-in-chief of the New York Times Book Review, Mr. Francis Brown. Mr. Brown appears in this exchange as a man with considerable editorial experience in general and very little “feel” for the particular work to which he has been appointed, that is editor of the powerfully important weekly Book Review. He, sadly, nowhere in the interview shows a vivid interest or even a sophistication about literary matters, the world of books and writers — the very least necessary for his position. His approach is modest, naïve, and curiously spiritless. In college, he tells us in the interview, he majored in history and subsequently became general editor of Current History. Later he went to Time, where he had “nothing to do with books,” and at last he was chosen to “take a crack at the Book Review.” The interviewer, hinting at some of the defects of the Book Review, wondered if there wasn’t too much reliance on specialists, a too frequent practice of giving a book to a reviewer who had written a book like it, or about the same country or the same period. Mr. Brown felt that “a field was a field.” When asked to compare our Times Book Review with the Times Literary Supplement in London, Brown opined, “They have a narrow audience and we have a wide one. I think in fiction they are doing the worst of any reputable publication.”
This is an astonishing opinion to anyone who has followed the reviews in the London Times and the other English reviewing papers, such as the Sunday Times and the Observer. These papers consistently set a standard intrinsically so much higher than ours that detailed comparison is almost impossible. It is not simply what may turn up in an individual review; it is profoundly a matter of the tone, the seriousness, the independence of mind and temperament. Richard Blackmur in a recent article tells of a conversation with the editor of the Times Literary Supplement who felt that the trouble with the American book reviews was just this lack of a strong, independent editorial direction and who ventured that very few publishers would withdraw their advertising because of the disappearance of the bland product being put out at the moment. A description of the Times Literary Supplement, the London publication, by Dwight Macdonald finds that the English paper “seems to be edited and read by people who know who they are and what interests them. That the vast majority of their fellow citizens do not share their interest in the development of English prose, the bibliography of Byelorussia, Andre Gide’s treatment of his wife, the precise relation of folksong and plainsong, and ‘the large blot’ in a letter of Dr. Johnson’s which has given much trouble to several of his editors . . . this seems not in any way to trouble them.”
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