In December 1947 the American writer Susan Sontag was invited to have tea with Thomas Mann. She was 14, a high-minded schoolgirl full of literature and the seriousness of life. She had one friend, and this boy, her disciple, had written to Thomas Mann, who was then living in California, telling him that they had been reading his books and admired them above all others. The young Miss Sontag was shocked that a great writer should be disturbed by two schoolchildren; and shocked again when the great writer acknowledged their letter with an invitation to tea. It seemed ‘grotesque’, she said, that Mann should waste his time meeting her; and besides, she asked, why would she want to meet him when she already had his books. The visit took place the following Sunday, and her disappointment was so painful that for forty years she didn’t mention it to anyone. It wasn’t that she and her friend made fools of themselves or that Mann himself gave them a hard time. He wasn’t forbidding or scornful or difficult to understand – all of which she had expected. On the contrary, what he said was too easy – banal, pompous and boring. ‘I wouldn’t have minded,’ she says now, ‘if he had talked like a book. I wanted him to talk like a book. What I was obscurely starting to mind was that he talked like a book review.’
I know what Susan Sontag means, but I wouldn’t have felt that I was in the wrong job if she had said that Mann talked ‘like a bad book review’. There obviously is a considerable gap on the scale of human achievement between a good book and a good book review – a gap which is indicated by the fact that, while there have been many great books, there are few great book reviews. In the ordinary course of things the best one can hope for is that some will prove memorable over the lifetime of an editor or his magazine. On the other hand, it isn’t at all self-evident, not to me at least, that a bad or mediocre book is superior to an effective or interesting book review simply on the grounds that a book is a book and the authors of books are nearer to God than the authors of reviews. No one would deny that reviews are by definition parasitic, as well as being quicker and easier to write, but a review can still be more accomplished and more thoughtful than the book on whose existence it depends. Which is something worth bearing in mind when academics wrinkle their noses and cry: ‘Journalism!’
In England not many people read books. If you look around you in the Tube you may see someone, usually a man, reading a thriller by Robert Ludlum, or someone else, usually a woman, making her way through one of Catherine Cookson’s romances. On a good day there will be one person reading a novel by Anita Brookner. But that’s about it. Among those who don’t travel on the Tube, the upper-class and the upper-middle-class read – largely books about themselves, of which there have always been plenty. People connected with the universities also read – some of them even read outside their own disciplines. But by and large people don’t read books: those who read at all read book reviews. I exaggerate of course, but not that much or publishers would be a lot happier than they are.
Vol. 10 No. 19 · 27 October 1988
I read Mary-Kay Wilmers’s Diary (LRB, 15 September) with interest – especially in so far as it dealt with the dearth of new fiction at the moment. It is a sad reflection on those of us who publish, review and read books that we have become so preoccupied with literary biography in recent years. There are many valuable literary biographies, and some classic ones, but I feel that we are beginning to write too many, for the wrong reasons, and to place too high a value both on them and on their authors. We have just had the first part of Bevis Hillier on John Betjeman, and the second part of Lyndall Gordon on T.S. Eliot. In addition, Michael Holroyd has produced the first of three volumes – no less – devoted to George Bernard Shaw. Not only was Mr Holroyd given an exceptionally large advance on his labours by Chatto and Windus, but he was apparently ‘invited’ to write his book by the Shaw Estate, on the grounds that no one had made ‘a serious attempt’ on their property since 1956 (see Frank Kermode’s review – same issue). There has been fuss made, too, of recent books on Ezra Pound, Tolstoy and Oscar Wilde. Finally, we have the story, at once funny and pitiful, of Ian Hamilton’s pursuit of J.D. Salinger, written, not by some third party, but by Mr Hamilton himself. In this case, the author writes to his subject, pretending to have an orthodox biography in mind, knowing all the while that Salinger will resist his interest. While being at pains to register his disapproval of Salinger’s non-co-operation with an accredited biographer and critic – ‘Who does he think he is?’ we are supposed to ask – Mr Hamilton goes on to admit that an orthodox biography was never his intention. On the contrary: he wanted to write a book about the difficulties of writing a biography, and chose Salinger for his literary experiment, knowing him to be the ideal subject. Bravo.
It must sound old-fashioned to say so, but some kind of decorum exists between reader and writer, which is intangible, fleeting and delicate, and which has surprisingly little to do with the kind of life we think, or would like to think, the writer led. Biographical information is valuable, but not absolutely so, and biographies of the kind I have mentioned seem, to me at least, to endanger the continuity of that decorum.
Vol. 10 No. 20 · 10 November 1988
Mary-Kay Wilmers is excessively gloomy, or excessively modest, in declaring that ‘there are few great book reviews’ and that ‘the best one can hope for is that some will prove memorable over the lifetime of an editor or his magazine’ (LRB, 15 September). Has she forgotten that a not insignificant proportion of the canon of non-fictional prose consists of books reviews – by, for instance, George Eliot, Henry James, E.M. Forster, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, Graham Greene, W.H. Auden – often disguised by re-labelling as ‘essays’? The genre is threatened, however, by the restrictions on space imposed by most papers these days: Macaulay’s classic essays on Boswell and Byron (both book reviews) hardly get going within an 800-word limit, and some recent collections of reprinted reviews look disturbingly anorexic. May the LRB, unseduced by delusions of ‘coverage’, long continue to set an example in this respect.
University of Nottingham