Sentences — June 23, 2008, 3:23 pm

The Baby is Beautiful

“What I’m angling for,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald in a 1922 letter, “is a specific definite review.” Fitzgerald cast this epistolary line at his friend John Peale Bishop; Bishop had written to Fitzgerald to tell him that he’d been asked to review The Beautiful and the Damned, and did Fitzgerald have any thoughts about it? Indeed he did:

I’ll tell you frankly what I’d rather you’d do. Tell specifically what you like about the book and don’t —-. The characters–Anthony, Gloria, Adam Patch, Maury, Bleekman, Muriel Dick, Rachael, Tana etc etc etc. Exactly whether they are good or bad, convincing or not. What you think of the style, too ornate (if so quote) good (also quote) rotten (also quote). What emotion (if any) the book gave you. What you think of its humor. What you think of its ideas. If ideas are bogus hold them up specifically and laugh at them. Is it boring or interesting. How interesting. What recent American books are more so. If you think my “Flash Back in Paradise” in Chap I is like the elevated moments of D.W. Griffith say so. Also do you think it is imitative and of whom.

[...] I’m tickled both that they have asked for such a lengthy thing and that you are going to do it. You cannot hurt my feelings about the book–tho I did resent in your Baltimore article being definitely limited at 25 years old to a place between McKenzie who wrote 2½ good (but not wonderful) novels and then died–and Tarkington who if he has any talent has the mind of a schoolboy. I mean, at my age, they’d done nothing.

As I say I’m delighted that you’re going to do it and as you wrote asking me to suggest a general mode of attack I am telling you frankly what I would like. I’m so afraid of all the reviews being general and I devoted so much more care myself to the detail of the book than I did to thinking out the general scheme that I would appreciate a detailed review. If it is to be that length article it could scarcely be all general anyway.

I’m awfully sorry you’ve had the flue. We arrive east on the 9th. I enjoy your book page in Vanity Fair and think it is excellent—

The baby is beautiful.

Fitzgerald’s advice on how to review his book counsels specificity: evaluate his characters (“convincing or not”); weigh his style (“too ornate (if so quote)”); consider the book’s freight or lack of emotion, humor, ideas (“if ideas are bogus hold them up specifically and laugh at them”); ask about its originality (“do you think it is imitative and of whom”). All these possible areas of inquiry are worthwhile, as is Fitzgerald’s insistence on specificity—corroboration of findings from with the book. All critics would do well to follow such prudent and straightforward advice—so prudent, in fact, that we might forget that Fitzgerald is telling a friend how to review his own book.

“Shocking,” we would say today, “such a situation.” For when one reviews for the New York Times, for example, one must swear that one neither knows the authors whom one is asked to review, nor has suffered any indignity at their hands. And when the National Book Critic’s Circle recently polled its population about their industry, “a large majority” of its member critics stated flatly that friends should not review friends, a policy with which Zadie Smith, during a London Review of Books panel on criticism, concurred.

And yet in Fitzgerald’s time reviewing friends was common. My post of several weeks ago, on Edmund Wilson’s review of Fitzgerald from 1922, in which one finds the sentence “F. Scott Fitzgerald is a rather childlike fellow, very much wrapped up in his dream of himself and his projection of it on paper,” was written by a Wilson who had been an intimate of Fitzgerald’s since their time at Princeton. The reputation of neither, it seems to me, has been invalidated in the decades since such activity.

We say, though, and flatly, friends should not review friends. I suspect that we assume that friends will lie about friends work if asked to review it for the general public. Friends, we think, will conceal the mediocrity of friends’ work and proclaim, to the unsuspecting mob, that the underwrought and underthought is matter of the finest grade. We fear, I suppose, that friends reviewing friends will devolve into a longer version of that explicitly huckstering form—the blurb—a form which more often than not features friends singing the praises of friends. Yes, now and again, a blurb on a book will be written by a writer who doesn’t know the author of the work he extols. But more often than not, blurbs are given by friends to friends, as a matter of both honest admiration and professional convenience.

Not for an instant, for example, would I doubt that David Foster Wallace admires Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, the former having blurbed the latter. Even though both men are long on public record as intimates, Wallace’s approving blurb of that book suggested, to me, prior to my reading the novel, that the novel was indeed most probably good, as it was. And yet, as reassuring as a blurb might be to a suggestible shopper, its half-life is minute: one does not return to reread one’s favorite blurbs. There is no nor will ever be an Oxford Anthology of Literary Blurbs.

If Wilson, whom every young critic in kneesocks and each old one in his dotage now holds up as the ur-critic of the century, could not only review Fitzgerald but legions of his friends’ work through the decades, then our best authorial minds might think about turning their critical attentions away from the blurbing of friends and to the reviewing thereof. It can be done honestly–that is to say with intellectual honesty; that is to say, in a fair and balanced (that sadly corrupted phrase) manner which can elevate our understanding of aesthetic enterprise.

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I sat in a taxi with Emma and her son, Stak, all three bodies muscled into the rear seat, and the boy checked the driver’s I.D. and immediately began to speak to the man in an unrecognizable language.

I conferred quietly with Emma, who said he was studying Pashto, privately, in his spare time. Afghani, she said, to enlighten me further.

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