Mary-Kay Wilmers

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.

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