An acquaintance called last week to register a friendly but emphatic protest. He was reading a novel to which I had recently given a strongly favorable review, and he found himself in vigorous disagreement with my judgment. The list of complaints he then proceeded to rattle off was a damning (and daunting) one indeed.
The tone of the novel, he said, is melodramatic and cliche'd. Its political viewpoint is naive, contrived and slanted. Much of its action is unbelievable, even preposterous, and the scenes of violence are ludicrous. As for its depiction of women--here the telephone positively shuddered with long-distance indignation--it is downright contemptuous and contemptible, portraying them as empty objects for male gratification. "I hate it," he said.
And here is the rub: By and large I had to agree, if not to the point of declaring open hatred. In fact I felt obliged to warn my caller that the novel's climactic scene passes far beyond the boundaries of credibility and that its denouement is entirely vapid. In no substantial way could I rebut his criticisms. Apart from the novel's handsome prose and its convincing rendering of certain set pieces, I now find little more to praise in it than he does. What on earth is going on here?
What's going on is a particularly blatant and unsettling instance of a phenomenon that surely troubles everyone whose business it is to pass rapid-fire judgment on the passing scene, a phenomenon that can be described as the embarrassing reappraisal. It happens to me with varying degrees of discomfort a few times each year, and I find it difficult to imagine that it does not also happen to people who review the performing arts and other areas of cultural activity for daily newspapers or weekly magazines.
It is a direct consequence of having to pass critical judgment under the ceaseless and unsparing pressure of deadlines. The amount of time that the reviewer has in which to give leisurely, thoughtful consideration to the objects of his attention is brutally short, if indeed (pity the poor theater reviewer) he has any such time at all. This comes with the job, and the professional reviewer accepts it without argument; but it remains that it can lead to hasty judgments that one soon enough comes to regret.
The novel in question--I decline to identify it, having no desire to embarrass its author--provides an instructive case in point. I read it in one sitting, as wherever possible I try to do, and during that sitting became intensely involved with it. Like many books that receive critical applause immediately upon publication, it is a work of considerable emotional impact, the reverberations of which can last for several days. Since I wrote my review only a couple of days after reading it, I was still under the influence of its emotional clout, and that showed in the review; I couldn't see through the emotional fog to the intellectual vacuum that it shrouds.
What's unusual about this particular case is the rapidity with which I have altered my original judgments; as a rule the process takes place over months or even years, but here it has been a matter of weeks. The explanation, I suspect, is that a great many of my friends and readers have by now read the book, and the torrent of intelligent opinions to which they have subjected me has forced me to reexamine my own rather less intelligent opinions. More typically, though, it is a process that unfolds over an extended period as time permits one a certain distance from a book--as no doubt time permits a similar distance from a play or a ballet or a musical performance.
Almost never does this process involve a book of which the original review was negative or mixed; the only review lurking in my past that I'd like to revise in order to make it even more laudatory is that of Larry Woiwode's novel "Beyond the Bedroom Wall," published eight years ago--I'd eliminate the few minor qualms I expressed and celebrate the novel as the American classic I now believe it to be. The far more characteristic embarrassing reappraisal is of a piece in which the reviewer was guilty of excesses of enthusiasm, of praising a work for virtues which upon closer and more objective scrutiny are revealed either to be far smaller than initially claimed or not to exist at all.
When I prowl through my files and chance upon such embarrassments--always with a painful wince of recognition--I find myself contemplating the situation of the estimable James Wolcott, book reviewer for Harper's magazine, whom I envy every bit as much as I admire. The reason should be obvious: He, like others in similar situations at comparable publications, has the luxury of an entire month in which to sharpen his ideas and his prose. Though Wolcott no doubt could come forth with shimmering and sensible copy in the wink of an eye, the fact is that a review is almost certain to be more thoughtful and analytical--more critical in the true sense of the word--when the reviewer has the time to give it genuinely careful consideration; not the least part of the distinction between the "reviewer" and the "critic" is that the latter has time and the former, usually, does not.
I go into some detail about this not because there's anything momentous about it, but to make a couple of points. The first is that if the reviewer's healthiest approach to his subjects is one of benign skepticism, then by the same token the reader's approach to reviews should be precisely the same; the rush to judgment can yield mistakes as well as pithy commentaries, and the reader is well advised to bear in mind that the individual most uncertain about a reviewer's opinions may well be that reviewer himself. The second point is that a related reason for taking early reviews with a large grain of salt is that they are, in point of fact, the first out of the box and therefore the most vulnerable to embarrassing reappraisal. In reviews as in books, caveat emptor.