Passing in Review

James Nuechterlein

Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 81 (March 1998): 8-9.

In this month’s While We’re At It, RJN makes passing reference to Christopher Caldwell’s astute article in the Weekly Standard on book reviewing practices at the New York Times Book Review ("The Reviewers Reviewed: Literary Boosterism in the New York Times," October 27, 1997). The NYTBR, Caldwell says, regularly inflates the value of the novels it reviews, and the main reason, he thinks, is that it assigns most of its reviews to novelists rather than critics.

Novelists reviewing novelists have obvious reasons for erring on the side of charity. They know the agony of creation and the pain of having one’s creation criticized. Fellow-feeling aside, the novelist/reviewer cannot be unaware of the possibility that the author he’s reviewing may one day be reviewing him. The result, as any regular reader of the NYTBR is well aware, is lots of puff-ball reviews.

This, Mr. Caldwell thinks, is most unfortunate. Art is, or ought to be, serious business, and it is no part of the critic’s job to act as "self-esteem builder for fledgling writers." The reviewer is charged with "the heavy responsibility of passing judgment." He fails in his responsibility when, "whether through logrolling or a misapplication of the Golden Rule to literary matters," he allows personal considerations to affect his judgment. If tough-minded reviewing exacts "a very high price in thwarted careers and bruised egos," so be it.

All my instincts are in accord with Mr. Caldwell’s argument, and yet, when I reflect on my own reviewing career (some seventy-five reviews, which would be a lot if they hadn’t been spread over thirty-three years), I have to admit that I don’t entirely live up to the stern standards he sets. I could offer the excuse that I’m not in the business of appraising literary art. (Only once have I reviewed a novel, and on that occasion Mr. Caldwell couldn’t have wished for more tough-mindedness: "There is little point in discussing [this book] as a piece of fiction. As a novel its failure is almost total: the plot is nonexistent, the situations have no credibility, and the characters are without a trace of authenticity." I went on like that at some length.)

But that argument won’t wash. The books I review in history, political thought, social criticism, and religion have to do with ideas, great and small, and surely ideas are as deserving of serious treatment as art. And the books’ authors have no more right to tender treatment of their psyches than do novelists.

Indeed, through most of my reviewing career I gave virtually no thought to personal considerations. I said precisely what I thought of the book at hand, and I doubt that any disinterested observer would conclude that it was my custom to err on the side of charity. Nor, I’m sure, would the authors I reviewed.

But in recent years I have found myself sensitive to personal considerations in ways I earlier was not. The reason is not, I think, softening with age (though I hope I’m less intellectually arrogant than I might once have been). Neither is it logrolling or misplaced charity. My own (non-review) writing has been in articles and essays, not books, and since such writing seldom attracts notice in print, I have little reason to fear retaliation. And, as a good Lutheran, I have a firm grasp on the distinction between love and justice.

What happened, simply, is that I moved. Until nine years ago, my writing was done in places—Kingston, Ontario, and Valparaiso, Indiana—comfortably removed from the headquarters of America’s chattering classes. I could be impersonal about authors under review because, with rare exceptions, I had not met them and could assume I never would. Now I live and work in Manhattan, and things are quite different. The nature of my present position is such that I’m far more likely to know, however slightly, the people whose books I’m asked to review, and I cannot pretend that has no effect on what I write. (The New York intellectual world is surprisingly small. Had someone tossed a bomb into the ballroom at the Hotel Pierre that housed Norman Podhoretz’s retirement party a few years ago, the entire neoconservative movement would have been wiped out.)

I had been in New York only a short time when I met a man at a reception whose book I had disparagingly reviewed several years earlier. As we were being introduced, he offered a wide and friendly smile. Then his memory clicked in, the smile froze, and he turned away quickly. What I had written was not, I think, unfair, but at that moment I wished I could take back the words that had clearly caused intense pain to someone who had done me no harm and who was, by all appearances, a perfectly decent man. If there is nothing wrong with telling the truth, why did I feel so bad?

Writers have long memories for unfriendly reviews. Not long ago at a book party I attended, a prominent New York intellectual refused to shake the hand of a man who had savaged one of his books some thirty years ago. Three decades may seem a long time to nurse a grievance, but the review had been so gratuitously and personally insulting—I remembered its contemptuous tone myself—that I could not blame the author. Yet reviews that have no touch of the personal can be as devastating as those that do, and can wound as deeply.

Editors, I have found, take very different approaches to what might be called the politics of reviewing. I have been asked to soften criticisms of books on the grounds that the author was an intellectual ally whom the editor did not wish to offend. I have also been asked to sharpen my comments on books where the editor suspected I was holding back because the author was ideologically sympathetic. All this gets one into ethically murky territory where, for me at least, it is difficult to lay down firm rules.

Mr. Caldwell’s strictures have to do with general approaches to reviewing, not with matters of personal friendship or ideological affinity. But common problems arise. The border between the tough-minded and the ruthless, or the courteous and the cowardly, is often indistinct. A writer I know who recently wrote what I thought was a cruel review of someone who had befriended him in difficult times defended the review on grounds of intellectual integrity.

In the ethical murk, some rules are clear enough. You can’t tell lies. You can’t call a bad book good or a good book bad. You should avoid reviewing the books of people whom you personally dislike. And for reasons aesthetic and intellectual as well as moral, you shouldn’t write puff-balls. But you can decline to review books by friends when you know or suspect that they are not very good. And you can frame reviews in ways that, without departing from the truth, put the best construction on a book’s argument.

One thing for sure: all this was a lot easier in Indiana.