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Lives of Which Novelists?

In response to:

A Very Lush Garland of Writers from the August 16, 2012 issue

To the Editors:

I am very grateful for the nice things Robert Gottlieb says about my books in his review of Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives [NYR, August 16]. Rather few nice things, alas, about the book under review.

I apologize to my publishers for the errors and infelicities Mr. Gottlieb points to. But I will, respectfully, attempt a defense of some of his larger objections. It is “A History…” not “The History….” The indefinite article was chosen deliberately. I do not think that “literary history,” in any total or authoritative sense, is possible. Even the best attempts founder (witness the Oxford History of English Literature, which, after four decades, simply gave up trying, leaving a train of hopelessly out-of-date volumes in its wake).

In any history of fiction, however angled, there will be ten thousand novelists excluded for every one included. Those excluded will, most of them, be what Mr. Gottlieb calls them: “second- and third-raters.” But not, for that reason, wholly unmemorable. The first-raters get attention enough. Having taught, for forty years, in strict curricular confines, I know well enough who the first-raters are. The book was an attempt to give some tiny sense of what lies outside those confines. I would ask Mr. Gottlieb to understand that the idiosyncratic selection he complains of was (however unsuccessfully carried out) principled, not the product of perverted judgment.

On the subject of “years,” Mr. Gottlieb complains that I am “stuck in [my] own time frame.” He supports the criticism by citing my date of birth—1938. What “time frame,” other than that which life has given me, can I write from? Mr. Gottlieb, I note, was born in 1931. I look forward with added anticipation (as a Victorianist) to his forthcoming book on Dickens for some instruction on how to slip the d.o.b. noose.

Mr. Gottlieb is harsh on my publishers for their editing of my text and laments the lack of any evidence, in their offices, of “standard proofreading.” In his own review one finds “Mrs. Humphrey Ward [sic]”—mildly irritating since he complains of my introducing her name (correctly spelled) too often; “Kenneth Graham [sic]” (anyone for crackers?) and “Sutherland’s judgment goes completely overboard when he rings [sic] in the likes of H. Bedford Jones.” As printed it evokes an image of me standing with a bell, alongside the fastest novelist in history, like some Olympics timekeeper. He means “brings” of course.

To return the question he levels at my publishers, are there no proofreaders at The New York Review of Books?

John Sutherland
London, England

Robert Gottlieb replies:

I very much appreciate the equable tone of Professor Sutherland’s letter. But, to put it bluntly, I don’t buy his arguments. Of course I wouldn’t expect him, or anyone, to be all-inclusive, but however he parses his title and subtitle, the implication in them is that we will be walked through the main contenders. He offers us Lives of the Novelists, not Lives of Some Novelists. “The” is “the.”

As for his objections to what I say about his choices among writers of genre fiction, I hope I made it clear that I understand he’s having fun expanding the definition of who “the novelists” are, and that I’m sympathetic to the idea that the boundaries need expanding. But his take in this book is far too parochial—too damagingly circumscribed by its heavy dependency on the writers he grew up with. My lifelong addictive reading of British and American twentieth-century genre writers—those he presents and far too many others—justifies me, I think, in suggesting that in his lack of discrimination, he’s giving us nostalgia, not criticism.

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