TO WRITE BOOK reviews is to labor in one of literature's scruffier vineyards. It's being Miss Lonelyhearts to the intelligentsia. You have to pick a lot of average grapes and press them into palatable reading.
Granville Hicks said it was conducting your education in public. Hemingway called it scavenging. Geoffrey Wolff in Inklings (he had sworn off at the time he wrote this novel) said reviewing gives you a mind like a child's magic slate, "written upon, erased, written upon anew, every blank space covered with names, theories, disputes, the plastic sheet pulled from the magic surface, amazement! The slate was clean! ...Nothing persisted."
Of course, the pay is generally terrible. Writing reviews today for one of the major provincial newspapers (circulations from 300,000 to 500,000) will bring you between $2 and $5 an hour. There's better money sacking groceries at the Safeway or A & P, and you get to flirt with the checkers besides. To review books is to invite your friends ask why you aren't a writer. And if you're an accountant or an entrepreneur instead of an assistant professor or unwashed novelist, watch out. Book reviewing is carrying the wrong card in the world of commerce.
Then why do people do it? I've always had a non-answer: because they like it better than doing something else. But reading Wilfrid Sheed's collection of reviews and essays in The Good Word and Other Words I've stumbled on some real reasons, chiefly because Sheed does it in such full flower. Brilliant right down to his punctuation, Sheed has found all the current possibilities in reviewing and exploits them like a robber baron. (His detractors, I suspect, will say he has run them to the ground; but that's a different review).
The key lies in a line Sheed throws away while explaining literary infighting. "Critism," he says, "is a contact sport." People like Wilfrid Sheed (there are only a few of them) and the rest of us review books because it's such a self-satisfying way of making contact with the great big world outside the study window. And the world can't fight back; it's so much safer than driving a truck. The sport comes in matching the words to the thought.
Where else, except by writing book reviews or reading a collection like The Good Word , can you get in touch with and deliver judgement on Norman Mailer, Groucho Marx, Irish saloons, the Beat Movement, George Gershwin, Watergate, Scott Fitzgerald, suicide, Catholic atheists, Dr. Spock, pornography, the 1968 and 1972 presidential conventions, Bonnie and Clyde, the war in Vietnam, and the underlying psychology of Vince Lombardi? Not to mention the other couple of hundred writers, artists, nitwits, events and books that Sheed considers in these 52 reviews and essays from The New York Times Book Review, Life, Harper's Bazaar, Commonweal and elsewhere.
It's a splendid journey The Good Word takes us on through the late 1960s and early 1970s. As readers of his novels (Transatlantic Blues, Office Politics , etc.) know full well, Sheed is as curious and independent as a cat, and he handles the English language as if he owned it. Sheed may have thought as a boy he wanted to be baseball player. But if he wasn't born to write, then the next most likely career would have been as a stand-up comic:
"It cannot be emphasized too strongly that an evening with Gertrude Stein in just an evening with Gertrude Stein."
"[E. B.] White's notes to the milkman achieve effects that others sat up all night for."
"[Henry Luce] played with facts like a cat with a ball of wool, doing everything but digest them. His memory span was just great for a weekly newsmagazine."
But to be glib about the world outside just window dressing for bigger visions, and Sheed's adroitness of phrase seldom distracts him from giving us his mind. It's worth having.
He writes most seriously about words, women, and sex. Nook reviewing gives you opportunities far beyond chartingplots if you have the necessary intellectual courage. Sheed does.
Sheed says to hell with the New Journalism as journalism. Tom Wolfe writes nonfiction in the "language of shoes and cocktail spreads and is called a fop for his pains, instead of the heartless moralist he is." "We enjoy Wolfe...precisely for the distortion...The real subject is his imagination." Sheed cares so much about our use of language because it's the code of our thought.
Sheed's "Now That Men Can Cry...," is the most sensitive essay I've read on the subject of women's liberation. It's about what's never mentioned in the Movement-love.
"Some of us are every bit as ambitious for our daughters as for our sons, maybe more than they're prepared for. We want them to have ineresting work, and every victory for women's lib is a victory for us. We know that our daughters have to be twice as good as men to get there, and we'd like to make them so." Furthermore, if women get the short end of the stick, men lose as well. "You have to go home sometime. And it's a rare home, in a same world, where one person feels good while the others don't."
As for sex, well, he sees it as it is-a matter of expression. Arnold Bennett wrote his stories, described his characters, and assigned theri sex later. "Homosexuals rage at a caricature, heterosexuals moon over God knows what-a college of images fashioned by their own sex. With a different feed-in of myths, they might well reverse roles...The hard lessons...come from writers like Lessing on a good day or Scott Fitzgerald after he'd been burned, who like the opposite sex but don't trust it an inch." The sexual relationship is adversary and volatile, which places it at the center of fiction.
I don't like everything Wilfrid Sheed writes. He has an assertive taste for certain words: "bourgeoisification," "cineastes," and "weird." He takes cheap shots at Hemmingwah and probably hasn't suffered enough adultery to know what Mary saying in How It Was . He uses B. F. Skinner's name like a reflex and I don't believe he has read Skinner's books.
None of which alters what Sheed the writer brings to the craft of reviewing books , or Sheed the thinker in engaging the sun each morning. He is one of our brightest reflectors. Let's urge him on in our mutual education.