Critical Mass

From the Critical Mass Archives: Scott McLemee on Wilfrid Sheed

By Jane Ciabattari

Scott McLemee, no slouch of a critic (winner of the NBCC's Nona Balakian award for excellence in reviewing) invoked Wilfird Sheed, book critic, novelist, memoirist, as he announced the winner of the 2007 Balakian award, Steven G. Kellman, and the finalists, Ron Charles, Donna Rifkind, Gideon Lewis-Kraus and Kathryn Harrison. McLemee quoted a few lines from Sheed's “The Politics of Reviewing:” “No occupation designed for dim younger sons was easier to enter than book reviewing; or, once entered, easier to rise in. You go immediately to the top, it is the least you can ask…. So whatever politics a microscope may turn up in this game can have little to do with upward mobility. Since there is absolutely no way of not reaching the top — and since the top proves to be so close to the bottom — the satisfaction must be sought crabwise, foraging side to side, magazine to magazine; passing on the way other reviewers of similar, sometimes almost interchangable sensibility, who are lurching counterclockwise.”

Sheed, who died Wednesday at the age of 80, tossed off memorable lines like this, on E.B. White's style:”White's notes to the milkman achieve effects that the others sat up all night for.” And this: “The first extravagant praise kills writers like frost. Whom the gods would destroy, they first oversell.” And finally, this: 'Toil, envy, want, the patron and the jail,' is how Sam Johnson, blues singer, described the writer's life.”


McLemee wrote about Sheed's novel “Max Jamison” here.