Janet Flanner (1892-1978), The New Yorker’s longtime correspondent in Paris who used the penname Genêt, is a negligible writer. She was prolific and covered many of the twentieth-century’s biggest stories, but never transcended the limits of journalism. Hers was not an interesting mind, and her books have documentary, not literary, worth. In 1980, the composer and music critic Virgil Thomson wrote a retrospective review of eight of them for The New York Review of Books, which has been collected in The State of Music & Other Writings (Library of America, 2016). Thomas was a friend of Flanner’s and is tactful in his judgments. But near the conclusion of his review he makes an interesting attempt to distinguish literature from other sorts of writing:
“Was that writing literature? She hoped and rather thought it might be. If literature is something you can read several times and still keep your mind on, then for me Janet Flanner is exactly that. So I keep her books around me. But if they are literature, what is their species? Poetry they are not, nor fiction nor formal history nor, after the war freed her from wisecracks, was she a professional humorist, though her Midwestern ways [Flanner was born in Indiana] with common sense and with debunking the proud made her cousin to Mark Twain and to George Ade.”
You can sense Thomson’s quandary. He wishes to be loyal to a recently dead acquaintance, but his critical rigor won’t quite permit it. Flanner has nothing in common with Twain and Ade but the English language and a Midwestern birth. I recall her prose as plodding, tuned to fashion and nothing like the work of her fellow New Yorker staffers, A.J. Liebling and Joseph Mitchell. Thomson tries again:
“The format of her own writing is closer, I think, to an English model. Let us call her a diarist. Columnist won’t do; she was personally too reticent for that. Let us think of her perhaps with Samuel Pepys, who could go on and on about London, and still make us wish for more.”
That’s not the Pepys I remember, nor the Flanner. Loyalty ranks high among the virtues, except in criticism.