A Review of Reviews

ONE thing that's clear -- talking to the men and women around the country who are involved in putting out the proliferating number of small book reviews -- is that the process is always a labor of love.

"We've survived for 10 years," says Ron Nowicki, the founding editor of the San Francisco Review of Books, "because we've had a lot of volunteers." This sentiment is echoed by, among others, Tom Auer, editor of the Denver-based Bloomsbury Review, and Matthew Gilbert, managing editor of the also-a-decade-old Boston Review. "We have two paid staff members," Gilbert says, "and we use and abuse interns on a regular basis." But the passions which get these periodicals off the ground and keep them there soon attract the talents of equally committed writers, many quite well known, who are willing to be paid in free subscriptions or less.

William Kotzwinkle, Kay Boyle and Stanley Weintraub are contributing editors of the San Francisco Review; all of them came to Nowicki's aid when he started up back in '75 and have stayed on the masthead. Ishmael Reed, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Niven Busch ("He just reviewed the Norman Mailer book") have also appeared in SFRB's pages, and Constance Casey, now book editor of the San Jose Mercury-News was an early and longtime volunteer.

At the Boston Review, they've run original stories by Bobbie Ann Mason and Ann Beattie, essays by Adrienne Rich and Denis Donoghue, and they've featured such poets as James Merrill and John Ashbery. "We began as more strictly a literary review than we are now," explains Gilbert. "Now we're an 'arts review' and that includes literature." But the book reviews are still listed first in the table of contents.

Belles Lettres is the name of a "new national review of books by women" based in northern Virginia and edited by Janet Mullaney, who put out the preview issue this past spring. "I'd become aware of the great outpouring of fine writing by women and also noticed how many people I knew were involved in reading these books," recalls Mullaney, who, before starting Belles Lettres, had no publishing experience.

Aware, also, that a similarly oriented journal, The Women's Review of Books, has been coming out of Boston, Mullaney says her ambition for Belles Lettres lies in a different direction. "I'm looking for us to be more journalistic and entertaining and more well- rounded." The newest issue, just out, contains pieces by Doris Grumbach, poet Linda Pastan and novelist Joyce Kornblatt, and there's an interview with Ntosake Shange.

"Bloomsbury's best-known writer is probably Edward Abbey," Tom Auer says. "But we use everyone from professors to bookstore clerks; they just have to be able to write and to know the subject well." Started originally as a Denver bookshop's newsletter in 1977, it's grown into a periodical that is sold in bookstores in "46 states, plus Canada, with subscribers in every state, as well as abroad." Like other small book review editors around the nation, Auer see his mandate as "complementing the bigger review media," even while maintaining a definitely regional flavor.

But, perhaps, Russell Hoover, managing editor of The American Book Review, located in Manhattan and published six times a year, best describes what these periodicals do when he says, "We were founded to give attention to small presses, university presses and the major commercial publishers" -- in that order. Some of the better known contributors to The American Book Review have included Seymour Krim, Ed Sanders and founding editor Ronald Sukenick. "We have five regional distributors and we're in bookstores, if not quite to the extent that we'd like . . . but then it's never to the extent that we'd like!" Hoover laughs.

Many bookstores that stock magazines routinely sell The New York Review of Books and often the London Times Literary Supplement. Sometimes they even have The London Review of Books, if not all the closer-to- home journals referred to above. Too, Washington-area bookstores frequently display Book World, The New York Times Book Review and VLS, the Village Voice's monthly book pull-out. Earlier this year, the national gay newspaper, The Advocate, produced the first of their biannual review supplements, with articles by William S. Burroughs and Quentin Crisp, among others.

And, soon to be launched, according to recent announcements in Publishers Weekly, are the Philadelphia Review, "a monthly newsletter for booklovers and writers" (with a special feature on Philadelphia material) and the Washington Book Review, "a bimonthly tabloid (covering) approximately 100 books" in every issue. Side Bets

IN the latest issue of The Armchair Detective, a quarterly for mystery aficionados, best-selling novelist Father Andrew M. Greeley looks at a fellow best seller, Umberto Eco. His conclusion: The Name of the Rose takes a definite second place to the "medieval whodunits" of the Englishwoman, Ellis Peters (real name: Edith Pargeter). Her nine detective stories featuring Brother Cadfael are set 200 years earlier than Eco's 14th-century Italian monastic teaser. Pronounces Greeley -- "Umberto Eco undoubtedly describes truth in his book. Ellis Peters, for her part, has only verisimilitude; and, as any storyteller knows, verisimilitude makes for a better story than truth and may, finally, at the level of myth and symbol, be even more true. (The Devil's Novice, the eighth Cadfael chronicle, is available this month, in paperback, from Fawcett, who also list others in the series.)

September 7-14 marks the fourth annual Banned Books Week. The theme this year is "Free Speech/Free Press," and the week- long event, sponsored by the American Library Association and other book organizations (American Booksellers Association, Association of American Publishers, etc.), features an eye-catching poster. On it nine writers -- Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Judy Blume, Maya Angelou, Norma Klein, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, James Baldwin, Mark Twain and Shakespeare -- are pictured with black tape over their mouths. And, the accompanying booklet tells us, library censorship is currently at an all-time high. But which of these authors tops the current "most-banned" list? In 1984-85, it was Blume. Her juvenile novels (Blubber, Deenie, Forever, et al.) were challenged more than any others in libraries and school systems across the United States, taking the place of previous top targets, Go Ask Alice, (an anonymous account of a young girl's involvement with drugs) and J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye.