Diane Johnson is a literary figure of protean accomplishments. A professor of English at the University of California, Davis, she is a widely respected scholar. She is the author of five novels, most notable among them "The Shadow Knows" and "Lying Low." She has written one collection of short biographies, "Lesser Lives," and is now completing what is expected to be a major biography of Dashiell Hammett. Somehow she also found time to pitch in on the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick's successful screen adaptation of "The Shining."
As if all that weren't enough--and for my money it certainly is--Johnson is also one of our most consistently interesting and intelligent book reviewers. Though her essays and reviews appear primarily in rarefied places, in particular The New York Review of Books, Johnson has an attractively accessible prose style and a taste for subjects of broad interest. As brought together in "Terrorists and Novelists," her book reviews reveal her to be a critic of impressive range and depth.
To be sure, "Terrorists and Novelists" suffers from the shortcomings common to such collections. It takes a considerable effort of memory to recall many of the books under discussion, and some of the political controversies to which Johnson addresses herself have long since disappeared into the footnotes of history. If these pieces are rather more elevated and durable than newspaper clippings, they nonetheless are journalism and must be regarded as such. One reads "Terrorists and Novelists" as one reads all such gatherings of fugitive writing: less for the writer's comments on specific books or issues than for the pleasures of her prose and the perceptions of her wit.
Although Johnson does indeed move nimbly from one subject to another, there are common themes and concerns in her book reviews. She is struck by the ways in which distinctions between fiction and nonfiction have in recent years been blurred, in art, journalism and life; she addresses herself to questions that, for want of a less shopworn word, can be described as "feminist," but she does so entirely free of dogma; she is preoccupied with the ways in which terrorism and other forms of violence have become standard parts of daily life; she is especially interested in the line, which often widens to a gulf, between the literary world and the real world.
Johnson can cut to the quick of a situation in a few words: "Anyone who remembers how fast the peace movement collapsed after the draft was abolished will have had his belief in the animating power of idealism diminished somewhat." Or: "Colette's advice, like all advice, is concerned with love, money or health, and while advice always originates in either morality or calculation, Colette's arises from calculation, or practicality, or whatever one will call that faculty which, when presented in men as business acumen or military genius, is always admired, and is never admired in a woman." Discussing Erica Jong's "How to Save Your Own Life," she nicely summarizes the business of publishing:
"Without claim to art or interest, the book is like an inert substance, say purple dye, which, dropped into the water of the publishing pond, creeps up various stems, empurpling now this petal, now that, indelibly tracing the cellular relations of things that grow in this rich pool of huge advances, 8-by-10 glossies dispatched in kits to potential reviewers and interviewers along with lists of questions to ask Jong if -- as seems likely -- she comes by; excerpts appearing in Vogue, and the rest."
That passage is penetrating and deft, but notably lacking in cruelty toward a book that, it certainly could be argued, richly deserved a heaping serving of disdain. Johnson is always tough and demanding, but she treats writers and their work with respect and a greater kindness than they often have earned. Further, she is one of our few avowedly literary essayists who can wander into the realm of politics without making a fool of herself; her essays on Jonestown and the Patty Hearst case are models of reasonable, undoctrinaire discussion of subjects that sent many literati into shuddering tailspins of predictable cant.
Johnson is a civilized, erudite writer who appreciates the virtues of reticence and restraint. She clearly holds passionately to her convictions, but they are those of belief and experience rather than literary fad or academic fashion. She has managed to bridge the chasm between the lit'ry life and the real world, which these days is an astonishingly rare achievement.