In response to:
The Shaman and the Schlemiel from the January 19, 1984 issue
To the Editors:
John Leonard’s review of The Stories of Bernard Malamud [NYR, January 19] was an unattractively revealing specimen of contemporary book reviewing—revealing, not much about Malamud’s work, but quite a bit about John Leonard. Readers of reviews are accustomed to the arbitrary criteria by which any particular work is praised or damned, but a certain effort of detachment or an attempt to modulate personal bias is expected and often achieved. Leonard’s review of Malamud exemplifies an unusual lapse in literary self-discipline for NYR. Leonard is so angry at Malamud that he cannot control slips of tongue that are mainly scatological. Writing of Malamud that he is “more interested in magic tricks than in revolting masses,” that Malamud must “see people small: Marx does not provide one of the lenses he looks through…,” Leonard cites a line from The Fixer in which Bok says, “there is no such thing as an apolitical man.” Malamud, says Leonard, “isn’t talking about the class struggle or the Jewish State or any other subject on which Irving Howe and Norman Podhoretz might reach an adjournment of minds. He is talking about covering his own ass.”
Aside from asserting this tasteless cliché that only political stridency is morally responsible, Leonard’s comment violates the basic laws of literary criticism: that the character (Bok) is not the author, that you must trust the tale not the teller, and that granting the author his donnée is something you do before you give yours. Leonard does not stop to consider what else Malamud is doing in The Fixer besides not doing what Marx, Howe or Podhoretz do (this is a sin?), and he continues to pile up the scatological inventory so that you forget he hasn’t said a word about the stories supposedly under review. Some examples: “Somebody Up There drops the Big One on a hapless Calvin Cohn [in God’s Grace]”; Malamudian “freedom is so short—that you might as well stay in the toilet.”
Leonard compares Malamud to a “sad grizzly bear in a cave,” (his cloacal metaphor continues) and reduces the language of a novelist known for the beauty of his short story forms to the level of the snappy-one-line maker: Woody Allen. Such comparisons do neither Allen nor Malamud a service; they suggest only that Leonard is not a very discriminating reader or that he is angry (again, for no discernible reason) at both these strongly talented men.
Even such a sampling of Leonard’s attack against Malamud gives no idea of the arbitrary, fragmented hostility that this review expresses. There is veiled anti-Semitism of the most confusing kind, too. Leonard takes Roth’s problem with Malamud as his own (“no wonder he gets on Philip Roth’s nerves”) and claims that “Roth spends a whole career trying to ‘desublimate’ himself and the rest of the Jews, and there’s Malamud….” If Malamud makes such an impression on Roth, why doesn’t Leonard ask why? If Malamud is a “strong poet” against whom his literary sons react, this is an interesting notion and needs to be discussed. Instead Leonard is angry because Malamud won’t tow the line Leonard-Roth (“and the rest of the Jews”? Is he kidding?) want him to tow. Leonard’s notions of Jews needs to be challenged. There is not “much socializing, much less socialism—or communal life, weddings, grandchildren,” etc. in Malamud, whines Leonard. In revealing his own stereo-typic thinking about Jews (they’re Marxist, socialist, social, family-oriented, and they should “teem and throng” messily like Roth’s and Bellow’s do), Leonard does little to elucidate Malamud’s art but does enlighten us about WASP expectations of “Jewish life” and “Jewish writers.” No wonder Malamud wishes to be called an “American” rather than a “Jewish” writer. Where can we find a critic who will discuss Malamud as an American artist? Who can expound upon why and how Malamud can create a character in a context so real and moving you must turn the page?
Is Malamud to be damned because his characters are “baffled” rather than left-wing? To the issues about writing stories and novels which people want to read, Leonard pays no attention. And certainly even the most negative review ought not to end with a curse upon the writer involved. “God has stopped talking to Bernard Malamud,” Leonard announces. Let us hope that the same God does not strike Leonard dumb for his lack of generosity and self-control. He lets book-reviewing down.
Nina Pelikan Straus
Purchase, New York
John Leonard replies:
I tried to suggest in my article that both justice and injustice seemed arbitrary in Malamud, and so did mercy. Being arbitrary is all right as a world view—that’s modernism—but it raises some aesthetic problems, which I also tried to suggest. Why are Malamud’s grace notes bestowed on one victim and not another? This approach obliged me to look at contexts—history, community, and so on—and to ask about choices, which are, after all, both stylistic and moral. Nina Pelikan Straus has every right to disagree with my methods and conclusions, although it would have been nice if she addressed the questions, which seem to have floated away from her like a Chagall. However: if we insist on certain standards in book reviewing, we ought to insist on similar standards in letters to the editors of journals of criticism. Because I am neither Anglo-Saxon nor Protestant, I don’t qualify as a WASP, and therefore lack “WASP expectations.” And to accuse me of “veiled anti-Semitism”—just because I have more doubts about Malamud than she does—is contemptible.