Peripatetic, itinerant, eclectic musings about books, politics, history, language, culture, and anything else that interests me.
They may be as inevitable as death and taxes, but that doesn’t mean writers have to appreciate or like them. Arthur Krystal wants us to know that he doesn’t, much — even though (or maybe because) he used to be one:
Fifteen years ago, I made a decision to stop reviewing books. I stopped because my inner préfet was always looking for an excuse to emerge. Given a book to review, I’d snap on my pince-nez, straighten my waistcoat, and get down to business. I was worse than officious: I was clever. If a sentence lost its way, if a character stepped out of line, if a fact failed to meet its obligation, I would, with a buttery phrase or sly allusion, put the author on notice. I was fair, of course (what reviewer isn’t fair?), but I can’t say that I minded scoring points off another writer’s mistakes.
Here’s the not-so-hidden secret of book reviewing: Many writers, especially younger ones, regard other people’s books as an opportunity to enhance their own reputations. What better way to show off one’s own wit, erudition, and verbal artistry than to debunk someone else’s? And if you can look good at some poor writer’s expense—well, why not? Edmund Wilson, himself a formidable reviewer, lamented that reading reviews of his own books, “whether favorable or unfavorable, is one of the most disappointing experiences in life,” and the novelist Arnold Bennett claimed he never read his reviews, he only measured them. “Reviewing is not really a respectable occupation,” W.H. Auden snapped. “A reviewer is responsible for any harm he does, and he can do quite a lot.”
Kingsley Amis, in a moment of weakness, allowed that a bad review could spoil a writer’s breakfast, but not his lunch. Really? Recipients of unfavorable reviews suffer heartburn for months, perhaps years. And why shouldn’t they? Reading a stupid review is a little like being mugged. You feel violated and outraged and want nothing less than to see the perp caught and publicly flogged. But what can you do? Everyone knows that disgruntled authors are advised to keep quiet, since any rejoinder can only make them look peevish while at the same time calling even more attention to a harsh critique.
I love reading book reviews, because they are, after all, a writing genre like any other, and I like good writing. I also enjoy reading well-written reviews of book reviews even when they are a bit cranky — as this one is.