In response to:
Between Animal and Angel from the March 21, 1996 issue
To the Editors:
One of the least appealing aspects of many contemporary works of non-fiction, and even of fiction, is the tendency to cushion the body of the book in layers of front matter. After a fulsome acknowledgments page, a self-congratulatory preface or introduction inform us how hard and long the author worked, why he or she chose this significant topic, and how to approach this book. In opposition, I have always favored the trenchant stylistic maxim derived from Baudelaire: “Coupez la tête et la queue.”
I was surprised, therefore, when John Weightman [NYR, March 21] lodged the following complaint against Frederick Brown’s Zola: A Life:
He provides no preface to explain why he undertook such an enormous labor of scholarship; he just starts straight in with an account of Zola’s father….
Bravo for Brown, who skips the explanatory front matter. Weightman also complains about the lack of a conclusion. Yet the book closes naturally enough with Zola’s death. Banish appendages.
Since, on the jacket of Brown’s book, I express a distinctly higher opinion of it than John Weightman does, I am an interested party. But I hope Brown’s resistance to convention here will be seen as a virtue, not the object of grumpy criticism.
John Weightman replies:
I am not sure I understand Professor Shattuck’s rebuke. I was not grumpily demanding that the book should contain the sort of otiose padding he refers to. My point was that Professor Brown, while dealing very thoroughly with the external details of Zola’s life, the plots of his novels, and the variety of critical response to him in his day, doesn’t at any point raise the question: Why should Zola’s life and work be of interest to us now? I tried to suggest that Zola is fascinating precisely because of his mixture of genius and intellectual muddle.
May 23, 1996