Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me, which is why an insult that would leave more delicate souls cringing in shame has caused me scarcely a whimper. With a stiff upper lip I receive the dread slur: I am accused--dare I speak the name?--of "too much generosity."
Could fouler words be spoken to a professional reviewer? Never in my darkest nightmares had I imagined that anyone could be so cruel as thus to besmirch my name. Yet there you have it: in the pages of The New Criterion, yet, and in the words of Joseph Epstein, yet. "Along with possessing at least a modicum of anger," said Epstein writes, "a good book reviewer ought not to show too much generosity." Because, he opines, "they want to seem friends to literature," yon Epstein names me and three other reviewers as "people who review too generously." Then he lowers the boom: "Their liking a book carries no weight--they like so many."
This came as something of a surprise, I am reliably informed, to the editors of The Washington Post Book World, who are accustomed to breaking out the champagne on those infrequent occasions when they receive an entirely favorable review with my byline on it, and who spend much of their time in a dogged search for books upon which I can be expected to pronounce judgment without terminally insulting the authors in the process. It came as something of a surprise, I am even more reliably reported, to my wife, who often devotes herself these days to cautioning me against professional curmudgeonry and to keeping the "Destruct" button out of my reach.
No doubt it also came as a surprise, should he have chanced upon a copy of The New Criterion, to Kurt Vonnegut, whose work I recently summed up in these terms: ". . . extraordinary simplemindedness . . . almost completely lacking in intellectual depth or stylistic grace." To William Wharton, whose latest novel I called "pious twaddle." To Bernard Malamud, whose "God's Grace" I cited for its "extreme moral righteousness, oversimplification." To Robert Stone: " . . . a preacher masquerading in novelist's clothing."
Or, for that matter, to Robert A. Caro, author of "a work of astonishing arrogance and presumption, . . . as unfair and malicious a biography as I have ever read." To John Irving, author of "The Hotel New Hampshire," a work notable for "its aimless plotting, its gratuitous and meaningless violence, its sophomoric, crypto-Vonnegutian aphorisms." To Ann Beattie, "all dressed up with nowhere to go," a writer whose "prose may be as uncluttered as a cupboard in a vacant house, but it remains that the house of her fiction is vacant." To John Updike, whose "Rabbit Is Rich" is an "exercise in self-indulgence and self-importance." And, similarly, to Thomas McGuane, guilty of "adolescent self-absorption," an "arrogant and condescending" novelist.
Methinks, gentle reader, that you get the point, though whether Joseph Epstein does is another matter altogether. There are, in fact, a couple of points. The first, and from the evidence above the most obvious, is that Epstein has made a serious charge against me--my judgment "carries no weight"--either in ignorance of my work or in a highly selective interpretation of it. There are, heaven knows, many negative judgments to be made about my reviews; painful though such judgments certainly would be to me, I am prepared to accept them as valid. But "generosity," as Epstein seems to define the term, is simply not among them; I reject the charge out of hand.
What Epstein imagines "generosity" to be, as best I can interpret his comments on "Reviewing and Being Reviewed" (in many other respects an interesting and sensible essay), is a kissing cousin of "spinelessness." The "generous" reviewer wants to be a "friend to literature," a phrase that conjures up images of the Wednesday Lunch 'n' Literature Club. Later Epstein mentions what I take to be the darkest motives of the "generous" reviewer: " . . . a fear of upsetting such powers as are thought to be, a hope for an improved social life, a wish to be invited back to do another review."
All I can do is plead innocent on each count and get on to the second point, which is that quite apart from Epstein's specific charge against me and the three other reviewers, his definition of "generosity" as here applied is mean and constipated. His "generous" reviewer is Mr. Nice Guy, afraid of offending anyone, eager for the love of all, desperate for invitations to drinks with Norman Mailer and dinner with Joyce Carol Oates, a thirst to be quoted in large type in the advertisements. But this has nothing to do with generosity and everything to do with toadying.
Less prejudicially viewed, generosity is a quality to be treasured in reviewing or anything else; to be "generous," in the pleasing definition offered by the "pocket" Oxford Dictionary, is to be "noble-minded, not mean." These are virtues to which I cannot hope to lay claim, but they suggest attributes to which any reviewer can at least aspire: accepting each book on its own terms rather than those prescribed for it by the reviewer, checking one's personal and political biases at the door, acknowledging honorable efforts even when the books they produce are failures, treating authors and readers alike with respect.
The person who publishes several dozen book reviews each year and who sets the above as his or her professional standards is almost certain to commit a number of reviews that Epstein, from his aerie, would view as "generous," as he so condescendingly defines the word. Is it "generous," for which read "fatuous," to say in a review that an author who set out to write an entertaining piece of "popular" fiction has succeeded in doing so? Is it "generous," for which read "sycophantic," to praise the intentions of a serious writer even while judging that those intentions have not been realized? Is it "generous," for which read "self-serving," to be polite to a writer of previous distinction whose new book is, alas, a disappointment?
As it happens I think not. Certainly the business of reviewing demands candor, and at times that can be brutal, but a measure of civility is also welcome. If civility leads to "generosity," so be it.