"IF YOU CALL SOMEONE a Lady Macbeth that doesn't mean they're a murderer." So says Harper's magazine editor Michael Kinsley, exasperatedly. However, he hasn't called anyone anything--at least, not yet. But a book reviewer in the February issue of Harper's, Marvin Mudrick, a critic who teaches at the University of California at Santa Barbara, has brought the wrath of Farrar Straus Giroux down upon the magazine for assigning to his review of The Susan Sontag Reader the title, "Susie Creamcheese Makes Love, Not War."
After he saw an advance galley proof of the review sent to his office as a courtesy by the magazine, Roger Straus Jr., president of FSG, Sontag's publisher, swiftly sent out a mailgram to Kinsley and to members of the board which oversees Harper's, among them diplomatist George Ball and the president of Bard College, Leon Botstein. In the irate message, Straus termed Mudrick's choice of words-- for he is a reviewer who insists on titling his own pieces--an "editorial obscenity." The "vulgarity" of the headline "for your diatribe against Susan Sontag," Straus fumed, "does dishonor to a magazine that has had a history of quality."
Puzzled by this reaction? Well, so is Harper's, which considered the headline irreverent but innocuous. Helene Atwan, publicity director at FSG, though, thinks otherwise, and it was she who first showed it to Straus. Atwan says that what came into her mind, upon seeing the Mudrick review, was an "obscene little ditty" which goes like this: "Susie Creamcheese, she's so spreadable it's incredible." According to her, it's well known "around high schools and colleges." But when she talked to Helen Rogan, associate editor of Harper's, Atwan learned, to her astonishment, that no one at the magazine was familiar with it. The only association anyone there had with the expression "Susie Creamcheese," Rogan says, was of the "amiable groupie" in a Frank Zappa song back in the '60s.
"Helene just thought she was protecting us from ourselves," Rogan surmises. But at Harper's, she continues, the consensus was that the headline simply knocks Sontag "off her pedestal without any specific sexual allusion." For Atwan and Straus, however, the Zappa reference adds insult to injury, the song mocking as it does a susceptible young female of decidedly easy virtue. Even employed as a metaphor, that's no way to refer to a ranking lady of letters like Sontag! "Probably," says Rogan, "what they can't stand is that we're treating her like an ordinary mortal. They're focusing on the title, but there hasn't been a word about the actual contents of the piece, which is very damning and really takes her apart."
Atwan counters, "The contents are not what we would want to or should comment upon." Though publishers occasionally have ideas about who should or shouldn't be reviewing their books, distinguished houses like Farrar Straus don't, as a rule, stoop to meddle. And a review, once written, is, as Atwan implies, inviolable. But a title, somehow, is different. Or is it? Objecting to perceived tastelessness is one thing, but should Roger Straus have urged Harper's, as he did, "to reconsider," when there might still be time to change it? Speaking by telephone from Paris, Straus strongly reiterated that he "considered the phrase revolting and indecent." When asked, he said also that he saw nothing untoward about the way he chose to protest to Harper's over their use of it.
Since "Book Report" had learned that Susan Sontag was also visiting Paris, it seemed natural to ask if Straus and she had discussed the controversial headline. Oddly enough, the answer was no, even though they had just lunched together. In fact, he had refrained from mentioning it to her at all. Why? "It doesn't serve any useful purpose," Straus responded, somewhat testily. But shouldn't Sontag be informed of the efforts he'd been making so gallantly on her behalf, if not at her behest? He then replied that he didn't have the article with him to show her. That seemed strange, because FSG's emphasis had been strictly on the offending headline, and "Susie Creamcheese Makes Love, Not War" doesn't seem that easy to forget, even after a transatlantic journey.
But let's get back to critic Marvin Mudrick. Did he have a sexual slur in mind when he came up with the use of the phrase "Susie Creamcheese?" "Not that I know of," he told "Book Report," "but then I can't speak for my unconscious."