Everyone, I suppose, complains about the quality of book reviewing and literary journalism in the United States. Much of it is badly written, snotty, theory-driven, pretentious, tin-eared, politically motivated, aesthetically unmotivated, pop culture-obsessed, or just plain dull. Friends boost the books of friends. Antagonists exact vendettas. These things, given human nature, have always been true and most likely will remain so.
When I read a review, I expect discernment and, at least by implication, context: How does this book fit into a bigger picture, literary or otherwise? I expect the reviewer to know something about books, but not merely books. I expect fairness, in the sense of honest assessment. I don’t want a review of the book the reviewer feels the author should have written. I expect at least one quotation from the work at hand, if not several, accompanied by at least glancing analysis. I expect some evidence of pleasure on the reviewer’s part, even if only the gusto with which he or she dismembers a lousy book. Especially if the review is negative, my preference is for a comic touch.
In 1985, at Washington and Lee University, in Lexington, Va., Guy Davenport delivered the Arthur and Margaret Glasgow Lectures, later published in Shenandoah and in Davenport’s second collection of essays and reviews, Every Force Evolves a Form. They are, as you would expect, learned, incisive and droll. With Cynthia Ozick, still happily alive and working, he was our best critic and reviewer.
In the second of the three essays, “The Scholar as Critic,” Davenport assembles a list of critical outrages, with emphasis on the ridiculous things said about Ulysses by the eminences of the day (Wells, Shaw, Woolf, Rebecca West). He writes:
“We are victimized weekly by bad criticism, and, by implication (as all criticism is informed by scholars), bad scholarship. It is my opinion that The New York Review of Books, that bastion of gratuitous meanness, has done more to discourage good writing in the United States than the Litkontrol branch of the Politburo has in the Soviet Union. And then there is the pernicious habit of the New York Times Book Review and the Times Literary Supplement of choosing reviewers with a vested interest in what they are reviewing. This makes for lively journalism, but for nothing else. For one thing, truly original writers must be omitted by this strategy, so that Ken Gangemi, Paul Metcalf, Jonathan Williams, August Kleinzahler, Nicholas Kilmer, Lorine Niedecker, Ronald Johnson, and the Lord he knoweth how many more, are not reviewed at all, and about them the scholars tend to be silent. We forget that William Carlos Williams got all the way to death’s door before he was recognized as the great poet he was, and that Louis Zukofsky, whose name may well be the best known of our time when the dust has settled around the year 2050, remains unknown and unread.”
I have read the New York Review of Books since I was a kid, and for the past seven years my sister-in-law has renewed my subscription as a birthday present each October. Though I look at it out of gratitude to my sister-in-law, I can no longer be said to read the Review. Its devotion to politics, the opium of the self-righteous, has supplanted any devotion it once had to literature. This is not a recent disintegration of taste. In 1974, the Review assigned Irvin Ehrenpreis to review Davenport’s brilliant first collection of fiction, Tatlin! In response to this memorably dull-witted review, Davenport, the least ego-driven of artists, replied in a letter published in the magazine’s Feb. 20, 1975 issue:
“I have endured twenty-six reviews of my book Tatlin! in stoic silence, and would keep quiet about Prof. Ehrenpreis's notice in your paper except that its stupidity is more an affront to the life of the mind in the Republic than to my book.”
Davenport was just getting warmed up:
“Any reviewer's first duty is to describe the book he is in effect recommending (or not) to the readers of your paper. Except that he says so, I would not otherwise have known from Prof. Ehrenpreis's review that he was airing his inept, feeble, and illiterate response to my stories.”
And, in conclusion:
“What's more, an editorial policy that can devote four pages to repressiveness in Russia and still send a book with the title Tatlin! to a nitwit who can't read and gets all flustered at a description of the human body is an editorial policy that can go flush its head.”