BEA Panel Report: Ethics in Book Reviewing, Part Three

With Tanenhaus’s disappearance before the Q&A session, the conversation became smarter and more relaxed, with John Leonard offering fascinating tales of his NYTBR tenure. As I entered the room, just after setting up a conversation with Nigel Beale that regrettably never happened, Levi Asher was in full force, asking the question I had intended (and he intended) to put to Tanenhaus, pondering the ethically dubious assignment of Henry Kissinger reviewing a Dean Acheson biography.

John Leonard offered an interesting anecdote in response to Levi’s question. He noted that one of the contributing factors that led to him leaving the NYTBR was one notoriously protracted piece of vetting. A review of one of Kissinger’s memoirs had quibbled over Kissinger’s claim that he had only one sleepless night during the course of his career (this sleepless night was before his secret trip to China).

Leonard continued to object to what he styled “performance art criticism.” He evoked Isaiah Berlin, suggesting that critics should simply quote the writer he is reviewing and to think like a writer in service of the book.

Leonard kept the interesting anecdotes coming. He noted a case where he, as book editor, received a telephone call from the hotshot attorney Melvin Belli asked to review a book called Judges in America, because Belli insisted to Leonard that he could offer some interesting words on the subject of American magistrates. Leonard commissioned the review and received an entertaining and favorable piece from Belli. What Leonard did not know, until a reporter from the Philly Inquirer had called him, was that Belli was a friend of the author and had posed with him in a photograph. Leonard ended up writing an essay called “Suckered,” in which he confessed how Belli had bamboozled him. None of this, Leonard insisted, was funny.

There were other theoretical rules on ethics offered by Leonard: One could never trust a poet, because a poet would wait for decades. Leonard jocularly insisted that all poets behave badly.

Prose objected to the common reviewing notion that if a reviewer does not like a book’s characters, there is no way that the reviewer could like the book.

Romano, becoming an increasingly amusing gadfly, then suggested that the world could use less of “Kakutani killing babies in cribs.”

With only a few minutes left, there was then a regrettably long soliloquy from a former reviewer who didn’t really have a question, but had much to say about the visual nature of the book review. Leonard, with Romano’s peremptory calls to this gentleman to offer a question, was gracious enough to answer it. He bemoaned “the misery that graphics have brought into the world.” He pointed out that under his watch, the NYTBR turned out a 70 page section every week. Since those days, graphics have caused book reviews to lose about a third of the words that they once had.

Ulin also suggested that there was no space in the pages, but that he had plans to institute Letters to the Editor on the LATBR website.

On the subject of authors responding to reviews, Ulin said that he usually didn’t permit the reviewer to respond. Leonard added that it was “almost always a mistake for an author to write that letter.” Offering yet another amusing anecdote, he pointed to a case where Alfred Kazin had left a long letter in response to a Joan Didion review, accusing Didion of being “a young whipper snipper,” inter alia. Leonard permitted Didion to respond. She answered with only five words: “Oh come off it, Alfred.”

And from here, the delightful panel ended.

It was a great pleasure to see so many experienced and committed editors in the same room. And I was particularly honored to listen to John Leonard’s wise words, in large part because I’ve spent many hours in dark microfilm rooms getting lost in the NYTBR pages edited during his tenure. It is the very editorial quality that Leonard insisted upon which has made me so frequently disappointed (and vocal) in Sam Tanenhaus’s abject results over the past three years. But if the NYTBR is a hopeless cause, so long as oily editorial interlopers willingly steer great vessels into literary reefs, it was a relief to learn that there remain committed editors and writers who actually care very much about ethics and less about stunt writing, much less stunt crises.


  1. Fun stuff to read, Ed. I wish you’d link to other litbloggers’ accounts of the same panel, so we can compare and contrast. And is there a video online somewhere? (Sorry if you’ve already linked to these things and I missed it.)

  2. What makes John Leonard an icon of bravery? I don’t recall him saying one word about his Nation employer, Katrina vanden Hoovel, as billionaire heiress posing as radical.
    Tanenhaus is a much safer target. What’s his crime? Recognizing that change MUST occur if literature is to survive?
    You may not agree with his attempted solutions, but he’s taken the necessary first step.
    Have you?
    You’re playing two roles, wandering back and forth between critic of the System to upholder of it.
    Which is it?
    Surely you’re bright enough to recognize what a sham these BEA panels were.
    Carlin Romano as wild dissenter? Gadfly?
    Here in Philadelphia he’s just one more stuffy mandarin, too afraid of the ULA to even answer our e-mails, much less attend one of our shows.
    And why was neocon British Imperialist Christopher Hitchens on the panel at all? Who was responsible for that selection? Do you know? Have you asked the question?

  3. Dammit, my question was legit. Newspaper reviews (and a lot of magazine ones) nowadays are so damn short, because it’s thought a big photo is needed to arrest the reader’s interest, that you can’t figure out half the time whether the reviewer actually read the book. There’s only space to say what it’s about – just a restatement of the jacket copy, often, and no evaluation; so the ethics issue is there. Leonard understood what I was talking about.
    Though I oughta say, given his ref to Shawn cutting writers lotsa slack, that the New Yorker book review of Harold Ross’s day is my ideal, albeit as written by Edmund Wilson, not Fadiman. But even in Wilson’s case the results were mixed when Shawn let him go into the essay format.
    And should say further that when a book review is sold stand-alone, as NYTBR is, that it makes some sense to emphasize visuals to the degree NYTBR does, since competition with other mags in a display is involved; but I don’t see why this would be so for the Wash Post or Chicago Trib sections or (where book pages go) the Boston Globe or Phila Inquirer. People who buy the paper and want to look at pictures will look at them in the style or sports sections. Any effort on the part of print media to compete with TV and the web in the visual arena is more or less doomed in advance, since the pictures on TV and the web can move. End o’sermon.

  4. I too am sorry we weren’t able to connect Ed. Hopefully another time. One reason Hitchins was there I’m sure was to draw a crowd. Loved his lines about what to say even when you think a work stinks: “Oh, you must be proud,” and “You’ve done it again!”

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