On Not Being Good Enough: Writings of a Working Critic
Celebrations and Attacks: Thirty Years of Literary and Cultural Commentary
The Good Word and Other Words
“How, i’ the name of thrift, Does he rake this together?”
—Henry VIII, III, ii
“Criticism,” Wilfrid Sheed said recently, “is what every reviewer would like to write if he had the time.” One might add that reviews are what critics often write while they’re trying to get up the nerve to commit a bit of criticism. But these are complementary thoughts, acknowledgments of a distinction which is frequently fudged. Many reviews behave as if they were criticism already, eager eyes cocked at a future collection. Others wish to be seen as magically transposed because they have been kept in a drawer and handed over to a publisher in a bundle. Still others do their daily or weekly stuff with such strangled solemnity that they are plainly making a bid for instant promotion to the other category.
Certainly we shouldn’t make a fetish of the distinction. Reviews may be criticism: Eliot turned a handful of his natty impersonations of the English man of letters into The Sacred Wood. More rarely, criticism may do a useful job of reviewing: Axel’s Castle is the obvious, attractive instance. Even so, a working distinction is not to be sniffed at as long as it works. Reviewing should be response, let’s say, and criticism consideration. We have nothing to gain from pretending we can’t see the difference.
Roger Sale writes at times as if he thinks reviewing is simply what critics do when they are properly employed, not lounging about the lower slopes of Parnassus, and his own performance in this regard is persuasive. But he also separates reviews from essays, and intimates that while Marvin Mudrick, say, is not in Eliot’s class as a critic, Eliot himself “was not as good a reviewer as Marvin Mudrick is.”* Discussing Mudrick, Sale offers a stern and helpful picture of what a reviewer is supposed to do:
A reviewer needs, most of all, good taste and the ability to say a lot in very few words. He does not need, and indeed is probably better off doing without, the capacity to construct an independent argument…. The work under consideration must be judged, but it also must be allowed to exist independently of the reviewer’s judgment.
This means, as Sale says more than once in his book, that a reviewer must quote all the time and quote well, because then “one is forced to try to make one’s prose responsive to the words of another.” I would say further, having learned through bitter experience and shrewd and amiable editorial nagging, that a reviewer must also, somehow, convey a sense of what it is actually like to read the book being reviewed. Quotation is essential for this, but it is rarely enough. In fact, quotation can be a nightmare, because even the simplest and most lucid of authors have a way of saying more than you want them to say at any given moment. A triumph for literature over lumpish reduction, of course, but it’s not always easy to feel as happy as we should be at the discrepancy.
The pleasure of reviewing, I suspect, is rather different. Many reviews are just verdicts tricked out with description and citation, and I suppose there is a pleasure in that if you happen to see yourself as Judge Jeffreys. But judging, for me, is the least of it: indispensable, not to be shirked, but not where the interest lies. Stendhal says somewhere that people may repeat themselves in conversation because that is how they hunt for ideas, and some people write reviews for the same reason. Prompted by a new book, goaded by its success or insufficiency, groping for a connection between works that seem to belong together, reaching for the right sentences to bring the thing to an end, one finds thoughts and half-thoughts one didn’t have before. Of his own kind of reviewing Wilfrid Sheed remarks that it is “imprecise, speculative work like fiction, and its truths are the truths of fiction.” He is thinking of his interest in history, in “cross-referencing literature with life,” and he handsomely says that “good textual criticism is usually worth a dozen of these historians’ farragos.” The kind of reviewing I have in mind does not tell the truths of fiction, and it may be quite precise in its way. But it is speculative, quick, unpremeditated, a matter of hints and guesses.
Irving Howe insists, in Celebrations and Attacks, that a critic (and a fortiori a reviewer, I take it) must “subordinate his own schemes and preconceptions to the actualities of a particular novel or poem,” and he calls the willingness to do this “a gift of character.” Without some such willingness we can’t even read properly, let alone start reviewing, and it may be a lot rarer than it ought to be. But this is only the beginning, ordinary, rock-bottom honesty—we shouldn’t have to sound so pious about it. Much the same must be said about the current praise for writing that is free of jargon. Freedom from jargon is not a virtue—it is merely the absence of a vice, and does not in itself indicate sterling intelligence. If we are to write well, the imagination must be caught, the mind has to move. Good reviews live local, particular lives. They belong to their occasion: to the book in question, to the reviewer, to the magazine, to its readers.
This is why the question of collecting reviews is, as Roger Sale says, sounding a little like Bertie Wooster on Grub Street, “a ticklish one.” Sheed jauntily bats the question away with a brisk mention of Addison and Dr. Johnson, those formidable producers of journalism unwithered by age, but of course there is something fishy about the whole business of “collections.” Irving Howe, for example, reprints a review of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, adding a postscript which indicates that friends have told him he overestimated the book. “Perhaps they are right,” he says blithely, “I have never reread it.” I realize Howe has other things to do, but we have other things to do as well, and I’m not sure why he expects us to be more interested in his old opinions than he is in the actual qualities of Doris Lessing’s novel.
Certainly the temptation to gather up old scribbles is not easily banished. Eliot is supposed to have published The Sacred Wood in order to prove to his family that he wasn’t wasting his time in the old country, but the rest of us reviewers have to make do with even thinner excuses. Solicitous editors and thoughtful friends, sometimes real, sometimes imaginary, hover in unguarded corners of the brain. “Have you ever thought of reprinting…?” “Well, no, actually, I….” Dissolve to the typewriter, where the tall tales begin to blossom, the yarns about the secret unity of this apparently scattered volume, or the continuing coherence of our after all rather limited interests. There are hundreds of such books, and I don’t mean to make Howe (or Sale or Sheed) carry the burden for them. What’s more, those yarns are sometimes true. But the risks of serving this cold grub on new plates are enormous. The jokes are never as funny as they were the first time, the subjects have shriveled, and seriousness in the long run tends to look like rigor mortis.
Still, collections of reviews do quite often overcome these horrible odds and dubious origins. Even the poorest specimens usually have something to offer, and none of the three books under discussion is a poor specimen. But of course what such books mainly provide is an erratic backward glance at the age, and our own age, in this view, looks crowded with talent and curiously short on achievement.
Wilfrid Sheed contemplates a motley assortment of writers and writing with a cheerful lack of expectations; Roger Sale grapples with unknown novels and tells us what’s wrong with Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Irving Home spars with Mailer and Roth and winds himself up for encounters with Faulkner and Frost. Why does it all seem so dim and rundown? Why is it so hard, reading these books, to remember that Faulkner, Hemingway, Frost, Stevens, Pound, Eliot, and William Carlos Williams all died only within the last twenty-five years? Is it simply that we are latecomers to modernism, as Howe says and Sale implies? Has nothing happened since? One answer is that nothing like that has happened since—like Ulysses, like The Waste Land, like The Cantos—and that’s all we know how to look for. It’s true that both Sale and Howe make large claims for Saul Bellow, but they don’t seem to count on widespread agreement. Another answer would be that plenty has happened, that Beckett and Borges and Nabokov and Neruda and Grass and García Márquez ought to be enough for anyone, and one wonders why they appear only incidentally, if at all, in these collections. Still another answer would suggest that literature itself has changed, has drifted out to the margins of contemporary life, can no longer be the glorious, selfjustifying vocation it was for Yeats or Frost or Joyce. “The work of art?” Adrian Leverkühn snorts in Mann’s Dr. Faustus. “It’s a fraud. It’s what the bourgeois wishes still existed.”
There’s truth in all these notions, of course; but there is also something dispiriting about such baggy generalizations, and the only thing we can say for sure, in spite of Howe’s title and Sheed’s good humor and Sale’s insistence on the riches of American fiction, is that our reviewers find little enough to celebrate and only sitting ducks to attack.
Irving Howe is inclined, as Roger Sale says of Trilling, to treat himself as an institution, and sometimes betrays the casual, insular arrogance of the big city critic. He doesn’t bat an eyelid, for example, when he compliments Ralph Ellison on his “ear for Negro speech,” or disapproves of the taste of “lady schoolteachers,” or lectures us on the “style of life” in Warsaw and Moscow. He has to shuffle Robert Frost on to the fringes of modernism in order to take him seriously. But Howe is not an insular man. On the contrary, he is as good on Faulkner and Pirandello and George Eliot as he is on Delmore Schwartz, and he actually looks for new and distant writers to consider. He insists on the right of blacks to “cry out their difference,” and on Richard Wright he offers a sentence that any critic would be happy to have written: “he had told his contemporaries a truth so bitter that they paid him the tribute of striving to forget it.”
History is a haunting presence in Howe’s work: not a background or a method but the inescapable place where we live. Many literary critics make gestures toward such a view, but Howe actually gets it into his writing. For him Delmore Schwartz’s story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” finally suggests “not so much a protest against mistakes, but a protest against life itself, inconceivable without mistakes.” The syntax is muddy, but the thought is magnificent. Life, with its mistakes, is history, and Howe’s longstanding concern has been that life as it appears in literature. It is for this reason that he sees so well that a reigning tradition can only support a writer, while a failing tradition may release marvelous energies, as it did for George Eliot or the American Jewish writers of this century.
Howe has little patience with what he regards as looser, less historical views of literature. I can’t myself see why Howe doesn’t allow Quentin Anderson and Leslie Fiedler to pursue the “subterranean relation of complicity and tension” which he himself finds in American culture. But it is true that Howe is most successful in the part of the plain man which he wishes everyone else to play as well. Who has been as clear about modern art and morality as Howe is here, on the subject of Céline?
As long as we fail to acknowledge that a writer who provides us the deepest aesthetic satisfactions can also hold the most repugnant opinions and values, we shall muddle both our reading and our lives. How it is possible for a man to write the profoundest truth in one book and vilest lies in another is indeed a heart-breaking question; but first we must acknowledge that it is a real question.
And there is great delicacy in Howe’s understanding of the authority of Pirandello’s modesty: “The reader who comes to a Pirandello play or story with the usual complement of anxiety will leave without having been disburdened.” One could construct an essay from that single sentence.
We are to judge a writer, Howe says at one point, “by his strengths, not the necessary failures along the way.” The same goes for critics, no doubt. The strengths of this “decent, serious man,” as Sheed calls him, are evident and durable, and his failures are remarkably few.
Roger Sale proposes, as in a mirror, a reverse principle. “The failures of the best writers of one’s own time seem to me the best places to look to see what that time is all about.” Sale is talking about the age and Howe is talking about writers, but the mirror effect is strange, nonetheless. I see the interest of Sale’s perspective, but I don’t see why success isn’t just as good a place to look as failure, and I find myself wondering whether a critic has any business wanting to know something as vague as what his time is “all about.” I’m surprised too that Sale, who has written so well on Empson, is not more drawn to Empson’s notion that pleasure is a better guide for the critic than disappointment.
But Sale’s gloom is not to be shaken off by any such cheerful thoughts. His theme is that the best books of our time are good but not good enough, and that the same has to be said of our critics, including himself. Sale is a very good critic, and I’m afraid there is arrogance lurking in all this contorted humility. As Wilfrid Sheed remarks, in another context, the closer you get to the American presidency the less it looks as if it was designed for a human being. Reviewing as Sale discusses it scarcely seems within the reach of humans, and it is a long way from these heights to the grubby scene of an earlier, very funny essay by Sheed:
No occupation designed for dim younger sons was ever 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….
There is something doctrinaire, insistent about Sale’s sadness. One of his essays is called “The Golden Age of the American Novel,” and in it he speaks of an “abundance of wonders” in contemporary fiction. But the morose note struck in the title of On Not Being Good Enough clangs drearily throughout the book. He is “mostly” a reader, Sale says, and then adds, “I don’t like most novels I read, but I would not want to be doing something else.” The misery in this sentence, coming from a man who must read five times as many novels as I do, is stunning. Couldn’t he have said that he enjoyed reading, but often didn’t admire what he read? On Sale’s high, harsh terms no one is good enough—certainly no critic, and probably no writer except maybe Jane Austen or Tolstoy. What we need, I think, is less flagellation and a softer axiom.
Still, perhaps it doesn’t matter if Sale doesn’t like what he reads, as long as he continues to read with such mournful and intelligent care—no one says monks have to like their monastery. On Not Being Good Enough has sections on critics and cities, but its main concern is current fiction. Sale distinguishes between the “imperial” novel, aggressive, unrestrained, possessive, indifferent to its readers’ feelings, and a quieter, more particular fiction, rooted in local lives and places. The first category contains plenty of better-known figures (Bellow, Pynchon, Mailer, Roth, Heller), and the second contains writers like Theodore Weesner, Toni Morrison, John Williams, Thomas Savage, Maureen Howard, and others. As the names suggest, it is not simply a matter of “realism” as opposed to something else, and even the nonimperial writers, Sale says, are touched by empire in various ways. Sale links this state of affairs to the invisibility of the public, a readership which may be large but cannot be identified, and therefore cannot be spoken to, only performed for. This makes very good sense to me. He also links it, less plausibly, to American power in the consort of nations:
My aim in using the word “imperial,” of course, is to suggest an analogy between these writers and their period, and to say that while most of these writers detest the American empire, they were in fact also expressing it, and deriving some of their enormous energy from it…. These writers share with the empire a ruthlessness in their imaginative assertions, and a tendency to sweep aside or to subsume such external objects as other human beings.
It’s not clear to me why the ruthlessness of empire communicates itself to some writers and not to others. Most of the novelists in question reflect American panic and despair far more noticeably than they reflect American power. But Sale also conjures up an empire at home, a sinister literary continent where talented, colonized writers cannot get a hearing because their noisy imperial masters have hogged the means of communication. The evidence is not conclusive, but perhaps we don’t try hard enough to get beyond the famous names. In this perspective Sale’s gravity is not excessive, and we must pay all the more attention to him because he writes so well about the novelists who are causing all the trouble. They are the “abundance of wonders” he diffidently salutes, like Gide praising Hugo, and murmuring hélas.
I have already mentioned Wilfrid Sheed’s sense of his own reviewing, with its rather casual dips into history. “I am perfectly happy not to call this criticism at all,” he says, “but just one of the things one can do with literature.” The Good Word reprints the splendid column Sheed once wrote under that title for The New York Times Book Review, and a number of other essays and reviews. The book is long, and some of the topics look a bit tired. The tone is light, sometimes downright breezy, and it can be a liability. What is one to do with a man who writes, “Like Oedipus, we may be sorry we asked”? Not even S.J. Perelman could get away with imitating S.J. Perelman so blatantly.
But Sheed is a writer in the sense that Howe and Sale are not. Not because he writes novels (although he does), but because he writes prose, cares about what language does as well as about what it says. Casual allusions are his signature. “If one had grants enough and time,” he murmurs at one point. At another he speaks of Catholic readers as “plowing their books into diapers,” and at another describes the bookshelves of the Fifties as they “groaned with ex-Communists harking to the hound of heaven.” I don’t want to play the prof about such a graceful and funny line, but please do notice the alliteration and the comic closeness of harking to barking. Sheed is the master of the glittering phrase—“People who have never tried it have no idea how pleasant being nasty can be”—and surely no one else could identify Evelyn Waugh’s college in Oxford as “a social climber’s disaster,” or Graham Greene’s family as “lumpen ruling class.” And in the following sentence Sheed manages both to parody dozens of history books and write a little bit of history himself:
Somewhere between the Romantic Revolution and the Great Victorian Exhibition of 1851 in England, suet pudding entered the English soul….
Sheed has a great appetite for what he calls the “vulgar, subtle sprawl” of America, but his best subjects are English. He is rarely less than funny and lively on any topic, and in his own generous way he is a moralist. But it is all pretty much featherweight stuff, except for the essays on figures like Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Orwell, Waugh, Cyril Connolly. Sheed writes better than anyone I know on authors who fall just below the first rank, and the clumsiness of that lamentable phrase is an indication of the sort of task that faces him. He claims neither too much nor too little for them, invents discriminations and tributes which no one has ever thought of (“Although I never wanted to meet him,” he says of Connolly, “I salute his memory as a friend”; Chesterton, he says, “seldom wrote anything hopeless and he never wrote anything perfect”), and envelops them in a crisp tenderness which is just what they need.
At such times the breezy tone stiffens, and we read of Belloc, his mind smashed into “brilliant fragments,” his gaze fixed on the flickering “masks of boredom” around him: “the faces of rich, restless people, tinkering with customs and beliefs as if they were lawn furniture.” Or of Orwell, afraid of his own particular form of the dark: “What he most feared was the blind spot between us and the future, the space between identities where we could get lost forever.” Criticism, occasionally, is what reviewers write even when they don’t have the time.
Mudrick has recently published a new collection of essays and reviews called Books Are Not Life But Then What Is? (Oxford University Press, 348 pp., $12.95). Sale's remarks about an earlier book, On Culture and Literature, apply perfectly here. Mudrick is "learned, witty, grim, quick to scorn and delighted to praise." He has an extraordinary gift for quotation, and a large fund of good sense. But that is all he has, and I am less taken with Mudrick's tone than Sale is. I find it strident and jangling, full of the sound of a man laughing at his own jokes.↩
Mudrick has recently published a new collection of essays and reviews called Books Are Not Life But Then What Is? (Oxford University Press, 348 pp., $12.95). Sale’s remarks about an earlier book, On Culture and Literature, apply perfectly here. Mudrick is “learned, witty, grim, quick to scorn and delighted to praise.” He has an extraordinary gift for quotation, and a large fund of good sense. But that is all he has, and I am less taken with Mudrick’s tone than Sale is. I find it strident and jangling, full of the sound of a man laughing at his own jokes.↩