A wounded novelist asks, entirely reasonably: What are the obligations of criticism?

March 02, 1997|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

Stephen Dixon is a distinguished novelist and short-story writer, twice nominated for the National Book Award, esteemed by many critics as one of America's most significant post-modernist authors. I much admire his work, his voice, his originality. Dixon is unhappy with me. A review here a month ago assertively criticized - dismissed may be more precise - his latest novel, "Gould" (Holt. 227 pages. $24).

Dixon wrote me a postcard three days later. It began amiably and progressed to express surprise at the review "by the political cartoonist [and] wannabe fiction writer, Jeff Danziger. Why don't you write an article on some of the obligations a book review editor has to fairness [and] high standards? Because with this review [and] your choice of a book reviewer, your book review page has sunk to an all-time low. It was unrelentingly mean-spirited, vitriolic, asinine, juvenile [and] lowbrow [and] I wondered where your blue pencil was."

Fair enough. Were I the subject of such a review, my dismay might be less civil.

But Danziger's opinion is what we asked for when we assigned him the review. And ultimately, whether he loved the novel or loathed it, I do not try to influence any reviewer's opinion.

Why publish book reviews? Here at The Sun, the intent is to serve a large proportion of the newspaper's busy readers as a selection surrogate and as a source of nourishment.

Culling distillations

We enter the choosing process with no preconditions, quotas or imperatives. We screen the seasonal catalogs of American publishers. We cull the distillations published by Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews. We consider consequence, provocation, durability, originality. I make the decisions, but only after absorbing observations and recommendations from a dozen or so colleagues and counselors.

Most recently, that process brought a pool of 10,000 and more spring and summer list books down to approximately 100 each for the months of April, May and June. I and my assistant Janice D'Arcy winnowed that to about 30 for each of those months. That gradually will be culled to the 16 or 20 reviews we publish in each month.

Who should write reviews? We have developed a roster, in constant flux, of about 225 writers. About half are people I have sought out, on the basis of published work and credentials. Danziger is one. He wrote a compelling and courageous novel ("Rising Like the Tucson") and much else of substance, irony and consequence.

Volunteers and writers suggested by others are asked to submit eight or more published articles of opinion, not necessarily book reviews (In general, having written book reviews for other publications is among the least persuasive of credentials.)

I and sometimes various of my colleagues read and study all that with the objective of meeting two standards: (1) That reviewers have convincing experience and seasoned authority for making judgments about the book being reviewed. (We publish with the reviews far more detailed credentials than is common, simply because readers deserve to know the authority for these judgments.) And (2) - more importantly - that the responsibility, artfulness, clarity, deftness, flare of their writing be of the highest standards we can achieve.

A reviewer's opinion is of paramount importance.

I insist reviews be judgmental, not simply descriptive or reflective. They must define the genre, likely audience and apparent intent of the book. There must be no conflicts of interests or alliances, real or circumstantial, between the reviewer and the author or publisher of the book.

Once I have assigned a review, we always publish it. To do otherwise would, I believe, destroy the integrity of the process and, by extension and reasonable inference, of all the reviews. I often disagree with the conclusions of reviews. But there can be no perfection of judgment, and any earnest attempt to achieve one inevitably would produce mindless lock step.

That does not mean reviews go unedited. We change not a word, however, without consulting the reviewer. I have had reviews that have gone through two substantial revisions. But never to amend the judgment - always for clarity or coherence.

Human distinction

My private conviction is that every quality that distinguishes the human species from musk oxen or tree toads appears originally or most enduringly in books. (Yes, painting, music, other arts may stand alone, but the best end up in books.)

I wish every book published would serve that importance.

Overwhelmingly, we seek books that appear to have significant merit, even excellence.

Certainly, some books deserve to be singled out as perpetrations of lies or stupidity or other evils or negligences. But in assigning reviews, my secret prayer is that at least four out of five will exult in the splendor of the book's insight, language, structure, nourishment. I am happiest when reviewers find the books before them to be affirmations of the simple, immortal truth that books are Earth's most important civilizing force.

If I presented that as the marching order for reviewers, these pages immediately would turn into warm and soapy baths of adulation and flaccid flackery.

I doubt any of this will put Stephen Dixon at peace, which saddens me. Obviously, Dixon doesn't like Danziger's opinion. That is a risk one takes - assigning reviews as well as writing books. As an editor, I accept the reviewer's judgment, doing all I can to make the review illuminating and readable.

Is Danziger - or Dixon - dead right, or wrong? If so, I don't want to hear it. What a grim place would be a world where one always could be sure. And, of course, that would mean this job would not be worth doing. Nor these pages worth reading.

Pub Date: 3/02/97

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