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Critical Standards

In response to:

Imagining Jews from the October 3, 1974 issue

To the Editors:

I’m flattered that Philip Roth has paid sufficient attention to my “bookchat” to locate in the over 500 columns I’ve written for the daily New York Times during the past five years the apparent self-contradiction he refers to in his October 3rd article “On Imagining Jews.” And my breath is taken away by the facility with which he has made me out to be the exemplar of the shallow-minded reader who did him the disservice of making Portnoy’s Complaint a commercial success, for reasons he hadn’t anticipated when he wrote it.

Still, I’d like to straighten out a few details for the record. Despite the impression Mr. Roth leaves that in a 1969 column called “Thoughts for the End of the Year,” I singled out Portnoy’s Complaint as an example of a novel in which the author did me the favor of abandoning “art” and “bar[ing] his soul,” as a matter of fact I did no such thing. It is true, as Mr. Roth points out, that “twice in 1969” I went “on record as an admirer of Portnoy’s Complaint” but he neglects to make clear that the first time I did so was in a review of the novel in which I called it “a technical masterpiece that succeeds in 274 pages in bringing the genre of the Jewish novel…to an end and a new point of departure,” while the second time was in a roundup of the year’s memorable books, in which I referred to it as “overpraised and overdamned for all the wrong reasons,” which, if I understand him, is the point Mr. Roth himself was trying to make and taking me to task for missing.

As for my having five years later retooled my critical standards to the point where I could condemn Grace Paley’s collection of short stories, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, for doing exactly what I had been asking fiction to do five years earlier: In the first place, I didn’t criticise Mrs. Paley simply for abandoning “art”; rather I offered her abandonment of “art” as a possible explanation for why her collection seemed “tiresome” and lacking in “universality” by comparison with her earlier collection, The Little Disturbances of Man. In the second place, I had not rejected “art” in the novel even at the time I wrote “Thoughts for the End of the Year,” for I had praised certain novels for their use of such devices as “disguise, artifice, fantasy, montage, and complicated irony” even a week or two before I wrote that column (indeed I had celebrated Portnoy’s Complaint for its “technical” mastery only a few months earlier).

And in the third place, so what if the attitudes expressed in that column were inconsistent with those I seemed to be expressing five years later? Mr. Roth himself points out that “there were good and solid reasons for this yearning for raw truth during the last years of the Vietnam war.” Why does he disparage my own expression of this yearning as “conforming to the psychological custom of the moment”? Has he himself never felt compelled by the “psychological custom of the moment”—whatever that may be? If not, it is difficult to account for the remarkable variety of feelings (some of them self-contradictory) he has managed to convey over the years in his hectic search for a novel-form to suit him. Or is it that writers of novels are permitted to change their minds and their feelings, while purveyors of “bookchat” are not?

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

The New York Times

New York, New York

Philip Roth replies:

First to the question of fact. Mr. Lehmann-Haupt writes: “Despite the impression Mr. Roth leaves that in a 1969 column called ‘Thoughts for the End of the Year,’ I singled out Portnoy’s Complaint as an example of a novel in which the author did me the favor of abandoning ‘art’ and ‘bar[ing] his soul,’ as a matter of fact I did no such thing.”

But I didn’t say he did, nor did I mention anything about “abandoning ‘art.’ ” I wrote: “…in what he charitably calls his ‘thoughts’ for ‘the end of the year,’ the New York Times book reviewer, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, who twice in 1969 had gone on record as an admirer of Portnoy’s Complaint, announced himself to be a no-holds-barred kind of guy with this bold and challenging endorsement of first-person narration and the confessional approach: ‘I want the novelist,’ wrote Lehmann-Haupt, ‘to bare his soul, to stop playing games, to cease sublimating.’ ”

Second, Mr. Lehmann-Haupt speaks of “retool[ing] his ‘critical standards.’ ” My point about him is that he does not have any critical standards, criteria, or position that it is possible to take seriously. Though even that is not his major deficiency, since in fact one does not look to a daily book reviewer, whoever he may be, for literary criticism or aesthetic speculation. That is not his job, nor could it be, given the sheer volume of the work he must do. The key word in my judgment of Lehmann-Haupt as a reviewer and a reader was “insensate.”

That he sometimes takes recourse in “theory,” simplistic as it is, has always struck me as a measure of his desperation—an attempt to ground fuzzy, random, uncertain, and inchoate responses to new works of fiction in what he takes to be the prestigious formulations of the moment. Alternately, he will manage to evade the fundamental reviewing tasks of summary, description, and generic characterization—of “establishing definite identities” for books, which is how Edmund Wilson described one of the first “duties of the reviewer to the author”—by squandering anywhere from a quarter to a half of the few hundred words allotted to him, in haplessly narrating colorless personal anecdotes meant precisely to be “colorful,” in conceiving ponderous metaphors often meant to be droll, and in attempting to illuminate his reactions with a kind of physiological cataloguing that is as unilluminating as it is clichéd. Lehmann-Haupt in today’s Times, 10/17/74, page 41:

The corners of my mouth turned up when Mr. Baumbach’s hero…They twitched when Mr. Baumbach’s hero…. But the corners of my mouth could only take so much of this….

I submit that this sort of stuff is no longer even acceptable in high school book reports. And then there is pure wind of the kind that leads Freshman English instructors to write marginal notes such as “A bit vague?” or “Jargon. What is it you want to say?”: i.e. “a technical masterpiece that succeeds in 274 pages in bringing the genre of the Jewish novel…to an end and a new point of departure.”

It would be cruel and pointless to use the occasion of Mr. Lehmann-Haupt’s response to my essay to comment so disparagingly upon his capacities as a book reviewer, were it not that he is probably one of the two or three most widely-read and influential book reviewers in the world. Of course (to answer his “self-effacing” irony) I have paid attention to what he has written—and so have millions of others: his column appears not only in the New York Times, but through the Times News Service it is made available to some 300 more newspapers in America and another 150 papers on every continent except Antarctica.

I have paid attention, and I have been appalled when I consider the disparity between the talent of writers whose works I know and respect and the talent of the man who so ineptly presents them to most of literate America and to people abroad interested in American books. Since writers are unorganized and live apart from one another generally, and since most of them seem to think that to conserve energy and maintain dignity it is best to remain silent, even in the face of the grossest misrepresentation and miscomprehension, this situation simply goes along, unchanged and unchallenged, arousing little more than grumbles and shrugs and cranky, lonely, Beckettish tirades from those interested parties who happen to feel the insult most keenly. But that is what it is: an insult to the community of American writers. And the insult is not by Mr. Lehmann-Haupt, who can only do the best he can, but by the editors of the New York Times, who most assuredly would not send a reporter to Saigon, or the Stock Exchange, or even to Shea Stadium if he had so little feel for his subject and his task.

May I suggest a remedy? It is not so utopian as it may sound: this is a country of 220 million people, and there is plenty of talent and brainpower out there. In my own limited experience teaching in universities I find I come upon at least one advanced literature student a year who already possesses the skills and aptitudes that one would hope to find in a competent book reviewer, and who wants only the practice. I would propose to the daily Times that they ask ten to fifteen eminent writers and critics to judge a competition for the position of book reviewer. Applicants might proceed as they do for a Guggenheim grant: by submitting examples of their best work, a biographical statement, and the recommendations of three to five qualified nominators. After the field has been reduced to twenty-five applicants, three unpublished books would be given to the applicants to read and review in a week’s time. On the basis of this examination, the judges would select the five they considered the most gifted reviewers, and the Times would then select one or more book reviewers from this list of five.

Over the years I have read any number of editorials in the New York Times praising the integrity of writers like Solzhenitsyn, and a few editorials chiding some of us here in America for being, in the Times‘s estimation, less than responsible to the highest ideals of our vocation. I’d like to ask the Times now to answer their responsibility to the community of writers, which, for many many years, has been taken less than seriously on the Times book page.

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