For my 42nd birthday, which took place last week, I received a sweater, a pen knife, a picture frame, a casserole dish, a suede hat -- and a large plastic bag filled with the severed heads of dead fish. This last, which was delivered to Book World's offices at The Washington Post, came in a gold Gucci box (a nice touch, that) and was accompanied by a card reading: "From the Friends of Kitty Kelley."
Happy birthday, indeed! Obviously this generous and welcome gift was sent in gratitude for my review in The Post of Kelley's new book, "Elizabeth Taylor: The Last Star," which I had characterized as "a bore" and "a tired, ordinary star bio"; to make the connection absolutely clear, on the other side of the card accompanying the fish heads was a photograph of the luscious (it was taken in 1961) Taylor that had been clumsily doctored so that it appeared she was giving me the finger. The friends of Kitty Kelley, like the friends of Eddie Coyle, clearly were out for blood.
So it is with great sorrow that I must tell them -- by means of this column, since for some reason they declined to give their names -- that none has been shed. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but fish will never hurt me. To be sure, in nearly two decades of writing book reviews and otherwise expressing my opinions in print, I had not previously been assaulted by a sack of fish heads; but I have had my fair share of slings and arrows from outraged and aggrieved authors, and/or their "friends," and I have lived to tell the tale.
My first exposure to severe authorial indignation occurred many years ago when I reviewed the latest novel by a minor writer whose previous books I had liked. I did not like this one. My review appeared in a national publication, a copy of which swiftly found its way to the author in California. He decided, at midnight, to telephone me and vent his fury; this he did, refusing to identify himself but leaving absolutely no doubt as to who he was. But inasmuch as his midnight was my 3 a.m., and inasmuch as I associate 3 a.m. calls with family illnesses and deaths, I was not deeply grateful to him for moving with such alacrity to inform me with such exactitude as to the nature and extent of his feelings.
But he was not through. He began sending me unsigned letters, in envelopes on which he had carefully written a return address. Why? So that when I replied, and reasonably politely, he could allow himself the pleasure of scrawling "REFUSED" across the envelope and having the post office return it to me. (The guy's wit knew no end; he addressed one letter to "Morton Yardley.") These pseudo-anonymous letters were cast in the form of carbon copies of letters to friends of his who, I evidently was to understand, had written to commiserate with him over the injustice to which I had subjected him. One of these read, in part:
" Yardley is an infant who cannot discriminate between self and world and who, possessing no sense of history (the one-day memory of a newspaperman), thinks that my journalism is 'personal journalism'. . . Oh dear, how this man wishes he were I, and hates me for being me, and would be me if only he could, and would then hate himself, which he can't do now, being himself."
What can I say? I took to the bed for days, grieving over the cruel exposure of this, my deepest and darkest secret.
Then there was the later review, also unfavorable, of another writer's new novel. This time a friend of mine happened to attend the author's publication party in New York, where, rubbing elbows and egos with the literati, my friend heard the guest of honor mutter: "I have a contract out on some guy named Jonathan Yardley." This of course was in jest.
But there was no jest at all, I am reliably informed by a number of people, in the repeated threats by an offended novelist that, should he and I ever end up in the same place at the same time, he would clean my clock and punch me out and God knows what else. I had written an especially harsh review of the fellow's especially bloated novel; this appeared seven or eight years ago, and I am told that the author still nurses his grudge. But he missed his golden opportunity. We were in the same room at the same time, at a bookseller's meeting in Atlanta 3 1/2 years ago. I saw his nametag, but he evidently did not see mine. Devoutly believing that discretion is indeed the better part of valor, and knowing full well that this time we were talking about sticks and stones and broken bones, not crank calls or fish heads, I kept quietly to my side of the room; he never laid a glove on me.
On and on the stories go. There was the close friendship that dissolved for several years because my friend didn't like what I'd said about his book; that rupture, thank heavens, has been healed. There was the time when a colleague of mine began screaming at me in the newsroom where we both worked; the sense of her commotion, to the degree that there was any sense to it, was that because of what I had said about her friend's book, I was "hated" by "everyone" in a certain town in Georgia. You cannot imagine my dismay.
This sort of business does not happen all the time, I should hasten to add. Screaming collegues, wee-hours phone calls and fish heads are not the daily lot of the book reviewer. Most authors (and their friends) are sensible people who know by instinct, or have been advised by their publishers, that it is impolitic to assault verbally or otherwise a reviewer who, in the course of duty, has reached an unfavorable judgment of their work. Most authors (and their friends) are sufficiently sophisticated to recognize that writing and publishing a book have built-in risks, one of them being unfavorable reviews.
As it happens I have been on the receiving as well as the giving end of this little folk ritual. I got a few less-than-admiring reviews of a book that I wrote, and I can report at firsthand two things: that the sensation is not pleasant and that the temptation to retaliate is extreme. But I found that a little bit of cussing in the privacy of my house did wonders for my morale; somehow I managed to avoid writing any nasty letters or making any angry phone calls, and I certainly am glad I did.
Perhaps the friends of Kitty Kelley feel otherwise. Perhaps they are convulsed by their wit or impressed by their boldness. But I am of the view that their behavior is even trashier than their friend's book -- and that is saying something.