Bob Shacochis (pictured here with critic Sven Birkerts) passes along his opening remarks from a book review panel at the Mayborn Nonfiction Writers Conference in Grapevine, Texas, on July 25. Other panelists were NBCC members Steve Weinberg and Mike Merschel.
First I’d like to confess an ambivalence to sitting on this panel with Mike Merschel and Steve Weinberg or any panel about book-reviewing, which is not to say I haven’t a passion for participating in a national discourse on literature, whether through essays or lectures or reviews, or panels like this one. But the ambivalence is elemental to the process of writing and publishing books. It’s not a unique ambivalence but simply part and parcel of an instinct to survive what critic Sven Birkerts calls “the literary vivisection.”
Secondly, I’ll confess to caring more about the aspiring authors in the audience than the aspiring book reviewers, although they might in fact be one and the same.
And finally, I’ll admit that I don’t care in the least about the quantity of reviews any work of mine might receive, but I care very much about who might review a book of mine, and where.
End of confessions for the moment.
When I teach a writing workshop, it’s important to me to urge my students to use the class as an opportunity to begin developing thick skins, starting now. Because if you wither under the harsh and perhaps unkind criticism of one of your classmates, then how might you endure a vocation in which the more successful you are, the more you increase your chances for national and perhaps international humiliation.
How would you like to be called stupid in the pages of the New York Times? It happens. Or a hate-filled coward on the front page of the defunct Washington Post Book World, as once happened to me?
One of my instructors at the Iowa Writers Workshop, Don Hendrie, wrote a novel called “A Survey of the Atlantic Beaches.” Not a particularly good novel, I must say. Nevertheless, it earned him a howitzer round right through the gut. Here’s the first line from the first review the book received, in Publisher’s Weekly: “This is the worst novel written in the 20th century.”
How do you survive a sucking wound like that? Well, you do what Hendrie did and try to let it go and start another book. Unfortunately, Hendrie died before he could finish that next, possibly redemptive, book.
After Hendrie left Iowa, he became the director of the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Alabama. I visited him in Tuscaloosa in the early 80s, where he took me to a grad student party one night and I struck up a conversation with a middle-aged man who was there, and when the conversation ended Hendrie grabbed my arm with unnecessary firmness and pulled me to the other side of the room and hissed in my ear, Don’t talk to that guy! Why ever not? I said. He’s a literary critic, Hendrie snarled. He’s a book reviewer. Don’t have anything to do with him. He’s the enemy! I had never heard anything so ludicrous in my life but a year later, when I told John Irving this story during a dinner at his house, he nodded his head and said, Listen to Hendrie, Hendrie’s right. Those guys are your enemies.
I thought, Wow, that attitude is off the charts, but the following year, when my first book was published, I was forced to reconsider Hendrie’s and Irving’s point of view. I was in the bath tub in Columbia, Missouri, when my agent called and my wife answered the phone and shouted down the hallway at me, line by line, the embarrassing headline and snarky text of my very first review in the New York Times Book Review. I was so horrified I wouldn’t get out of the fetal sanctuary of the bathtub for the next two weeks. I’m serious. A photographer from the local paper came to take my picture in the bathtub, which was used to illustrate a story the paper ran on my debut as an author. A few months after that book received a National Book Award for First Fiction, a magazine editor I worked with bumped into the reviewer at a New York party, who blurted out she had been set up by her editor, Caryn James, at the New York Times, who wanted the reviewer to kick my supposedly macho butt. The headline on the review, by the way, was “Free, White, and Hairy-Chested.” Imagine if the head on the review of a debut collection of stories from a young Jewish woman living in New Jersey read, “Free, Ashkenazi, and Big- Breasted,” and the insult becomes a bit more apparent.
How common are the set-ups? Well, common enough. I’ve been prodded by book review editors on more than one occasion to go after somebody. In fact, after the National Book Awards in 1985, I got a call from an editor at the Times Book Review who told me, We thought we’d give you a chance to get even. I was asked to review Deborah Eisenberg’s debut collection, “Transactions in a Foreign Currency.” The book impressed the hell out of me and I sang Eisenberg’s praises to the heavens. When the review ran, I was appalled to see that the editor had turned my rave into something a bit less enthusiastic than I had intended.
More common than hatchet jobs though is the impulse–or the deliberate calculation–in some reviewers to turn their nose up at just about everything that comes in front of them. Dale Peck immediately comes to mind, although overall, Peck was a lot more positive than his reputation would lead you to believe. Let me tell you one last anecdote before I shut up.
In the early 90s, I tried to enlist my friend Amy Hempel to come join our faculty at the Bennington Writing Seminars, something she wanted to do but there was a problem. The problem was she loathed one of my Bennington colleagues–Sven Birkerts–and imagined scratching his eyes out if they were ever in the same room together. The problem was, Sven had attacked her extraordinary first book, “Reasons to Live,” when it was released, and Amy had never
forgiven him. But I convinced her to come up to Vermont and at least interview and give a reading and absorb the wonderful atmosphere and see if she might change her mind. I introduced her at her reading, Sven of course was in the audience, and I launched a counterassault on her critics, without naming names, paraphrasing something that was in one of her books, an unspoken law among scientists to the effect that, sometimes you have to look at a thing many times before you actually and truly see it once–which is not particularly a law of deadlines and book reviews.
Anyway, Sven, a man of great integrity, got the message. Within the next 24 hours he had re-read “Reasons To Live” and saw that it did not belong, because of its complex moral underpinnings, to the Brat Pack canon, to which he had assigned it. He wrote Amy a note of apology, and today they are the closest of friends. (See Steve Almond’s recent J’accuse in The Rumpus on reviewers who ignore, either through incompetence or malice, an author’s moral and aesthetic intent.)
When Amy told me Sven had written her that letter I went and sought him out and said, You know, Sven, I know what you don’t like but I have no idea what you do like. That was back in the early 90s and is certainly not true today–today I have a very clear idea of what rocks Sven’s world as a literary critic, and it’s plenty. But back then I also said to Sven this, which sort of embodies all the complications and contradictions and ironies of writing and book reviewing.
I told Sven I couldn’t foresee a time when I wouldn’t be pissed at him. My God, why? said Sven, we’re friends. Exactly, I said, we’re friends and colleagues and that means you’ll never review my work, and I can’t stand the sense of loss that gives me, for the fact remains that Sven remains one of the most astute, thoughtful, insightful, trustworthy, brilliant literary critics out there, and I would chop off my left hand to have him write about my work, whether he
hammered me or stroked me, and at least know that about the value of my lifetime’s labors. Which is to say, once again, that this business of writing and this business of reviewing float on a sea of volatile emotions, a continual blooming of white hot grudges and eternal hatreds and, conversely, a steady proliferation of gratitude, relief, reassurance, and thanks to the gods, literary or otherwise.
I’m just saying.
And let’s keep in mind that getting scalped isn’t the worst-case scenario for an author. The worst thing that can happen to you is silence. Wrote a book, did you? Yeah? Congratulations, but who cares?
I’d prefer a good old-fashioned ass-whipping any time.