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That Reviewer 'cuss' Post by :investx Category :Essays Author :Robert Cortes Holliday Date :October 2011 Read :1434

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That Reviewer "cuss"

There are very young, oh absurdly young! reviewers; and there are elderly reviewers, with whiskers. There are also women reviewers. Absurdly young reviewers are inclined to be youthful in their reviews. Elderly reviewers usually have missed fire with their lives, or they wouldn't still be reviewers. The best sort of a reviewer is the reviewer that is just getting slightly bald. He is not a flippertigibbet, and still an intelligent man--if he is a good reviewer.

Book reviews are in nearly all the papers. Proprietors of newspapers don't read these things: they think they are deadly stuff. Many authors don't: because they regard them as ill-natured and exceedingly stupid. Book clerks don't read them much: for that would be like working overtime. Business men infrequently have time for such nonsense. University professors are inclined to pooh-pooh them as things beneath them. Still somebody must read them, as publishers pay for them with their advertising. No publishers' advertising, no book reviews, is the policy of nearly every newspaper; and the reviews are generally in proportion to the amount of advertising. Now publishers are sagacious men who generally live in comfortable circumstances, and who occasionally get quite rich and mingle in important society. They set considerable store by reviews; they employ publicity men at good wages who continually supply reviewers with valuable information by post and telephone; they are fond of quoting in large type remarks from reviews which please them; and sometimes, at reviews they don't like, they stir up a fuss and have literary editors removed from office.

Yes, reviews have much power. They are eagerly read by multitudes of people who write very indignantly to the paper to correct and rebuke the reviewer when, owing to fatigue, he refers to Miss Mitford as having written "Cranford," or otherwise blunders. They are the wings of fame to new authors. They can increase the sale of a book by saying that it should not be in the hands of the young. They are tolerated by the owners of papers, who are very powerful men indeed, engaged in the vast modern industry of manufacturing news for the people, and in constant effort to obtain control of politics. Reviewers are paid space rates of, in some instances, as much as eight dollars a column, with the head lines deducted. When there is no other payment they always get the book they review free for their libraries, or to sell cheap to the second-hand man. Reviewers are spoken of as "the critics"--by simple-minded people; when their printed remarks are useful for that purpose, the remarks are called "leading critical opinions"--by advertisements; and reviewers are sometimes invited to lunch by astute authors, and are treated to pleasant dishes to cheer them, and given good cigars to smoke.

Occasionally somebody ups and discusses the nature of our literary journalism and what sort of a creature the reviewer is. Dr. Bliss Perry was at this not long ago in the Yale Review. Editor for a couple of decades of our foremost literary journal, and now a professor in one of our great universities, Dr. Perry certainly knows a good deal about various branches of the book business. His highly critical review of the reviewing business has somewhat the character of a history that a great general might write of a war. A man who had served in the trenches, however, would give a more intimate picture, though of course it would not be as good history.

I will give an intimate picture of the American reviewer at work to-day: the absurdly young, the slightly bald, and the elderly with whiskers; and of his hard and picturesque trade.

There was an old man who had devoted a great many years to a close study of engraved gems. He embodied the result of his elaborate researches in a learned volume. I never had a gem of any kind in my life; at the time of which I write I did not have a job. A friend of mine, who was a professional reviewer, and at whose house I was stopping, brought home one day this book on engraved gems, and told me he had got it for me to review. "But," I said, "I don't know anything about engraved gems, and" (you see I was very inexperienced) "I can write only about things that particularly interest me." "You are a devil of a journalist," was my friend's reply; "you'd better get to work on this right away. You studied art, didn't you? I told the editor you knew all about art. And he has to have the article by Thursday."

He instructed me in certain elementary principles of the art of successful reviewing; such, for example, as getting your information out of the book itself; and he cautioned me against employing too many quotation marks, as the editor did not like that.

My review, of a couple of columns, cut a bit here and there by the literary editor, appeared in a prominent New York paper. Speaking quite impartially, simply as now a trained judge of these things, I will say that it was a very fair review: it "gave the book," as the term is. I discovered that I had something of a talent for this work; and so it was that I entered a profession which I have followed, with divers vicissitudes, for a number of years.

I became good friends with that literary editor, and began to contribute regularly week by week to his paper. He liked my style, and always gave me a good position in the paper. He liked me personally, and always put my name to my reviews; which was a thing against the rule of the paper--that being that only articles by celebrated persons were to be signed.

This is a point sometimes questioned. It seems to me that it is a good thing for the reviewer to have his work signed, particularly for the young reviewer, whose yet ardent spirit craves a place in the sun. It contributes to his pleasant conception of reviewing as a fine thing to do. It makes him more alive than the anonymous thing. He meets people who brighten at the recollection of having read his name. I know a man who was a very witty reviewer (when he was young); that fellow used to get love letters from ladies he had never seen, just like a baseball pitcher, or a tenor; there was a rich man who ate meals at the Century Club had him there to dinner, because he thought him funny; he got a note from a Literary Adviser asking him for a book manuscript; and two persons wrote him from San Francisco. I myself have had courteous letters thanking me from authors here and in England. That fellow of whom I just spoke undoubtedly was on the threshold of a brilliant career; he was full of courage and laughter, though very poor. Then a great man offered him a Position as a literary editor. His name ceased to be seen; I heard of him after a year, and it was said of him that he was dreadfully bald and had a long beard, I mean of course metaphorically speaking.

Whether signed reviewers are conducive to honesty I am not sure. There was a man (I know him well) wrote a book on Alaska or some such place, claimed he had been there. There was another man, his friend, who was a reviewer. Now the Alaskaian said to the critic: "Why don't you get my book from the paper? I'll write the review--I know more about the book than anybody else, anyway; and you sign it and get the money." And this was done; and it was an excellent review; and the paper (which you read every day) was no wiser.

The literary editor who signed my reviews for me was a youth of an independent turn of mind. He encouraged the expression in reviews of exactly what one thought; he liked an individual note in them; he had an enthusiasm for books of literary quality, somewhat to the neglect of other branches of the publishing business; he gathered about him a group of writers of a spirit kindred to his own; and he was rapidly moulding his department of his paper into a thing, perhaps a plaything, of life and colour.

But he lacked commercial tact. He wanted to make something like the English lighter literary journals. He offended the powers behind the man higher up. I saw him last on a Wednesday; he outlined his plans for the future. On Friday, I know he "made up" his paper. Saturday I looked for him, but he had gone from that place. There was in it a dried man of much hard experience of newspapers, who reigned in that youth's stead. The wrath of authority grinds with exceeding quickness.

This which I have written is history, as many excellent of mind know, and should be put into a book: for it reveals how close we came to having in this country a Literary Doings that could be read for pleasure. I continued to learn the business.

Sometimes reviewers are poets also. I know fifteen. Sometimes they are Irishmen. Sometimes both. I knew one who was one of those Celtic Poets. His name had all the colour of the late Irish literary movement. That is, after he became a man of letters; before that it was Bill Somethingorother. He was an earnest person, without humour (strange for an Irishman!), eloquent, very pronounced in his opinions; and he had never read anything at all (outside of Columbia University) before he was called to the literary profession. Later he went into politics, and became something at Washington. Some reviewers, again, are lexicographers. I know about a dozen of these, ranging in age from twenty-seven years to seventy. When they had finished writing the dictionary, they joined the army of the unemployed, and became reviewers. I am acquainted with one reviewer who has been everything, almost, under the sun--a husband, a father, and a householder; he has been successively a socialist, an aesthete, a Churchman, and a Roman Catholic. He is an eager student of the universe, a prodigiously energetic journalist, a lively and a humorous writer, a person of marked talent. He will be thirty shortly.

Sometimes reviews are charmingly written by veteran literary men, such as, for instance, Mr. Le Gallienne, and Mr. Huneker. Dr. Perry mentions among reviewers a group of seasoned bookmen, including Mr. Paul Elmer More and Professor Frank Mather, Jr. Mr. Boynton is another sound workman. On the other hand, by some papers, books are economically given out for review to reporters. And again (for the same reason), to editorial writers and to various editors. In America, you know, practically everybody connected with a newspaper is an editor. The man who sits all day in his shirt sleeves smoking a corncob pipe, clipping up with large scissors vast piles of newspapers, is exchange editor. There was a paper for which I worked from morn till dewy eve, reviewing hooks, where we used to say that we had an elevator editor and a scrub editor, and a nice charwoman she was.

Reviewers of course frequently differ widely in their conceptions of a book. I said one time of a book of Lady Gregory's that it was a highly amusing affair; and I gave numerous excerpts in support of my statement. I had enjoyed the book greatly. It was delightful, I thought. It was then a bit of a jolt to me to read a lengthy article by another reviewer of the same book, who set forth that Lady Gregory was an extremely serious person, with never a smile, and who gave copious evidence of this point in quotations. Each of us made out a perfectly good case.

Now suppose you read in the New York This, a daily paper, that Such-and-Such a book was the best thing of its kind since Adam. And suppose you found the same opinion to be that of the New York Weekly That and of the New York Weekly Other. Notwithstanding that the New York Something-Else declared that this was the rottenest hook that ever came from the press, you would be inclined to accept the conclusion of the majority of critics, would you not? Well, I'll tell you this: the man who "does" the fiction week by week for the New York This and for The That and for The Other, is one and the same industrious person. I know him well. He has a large family to support (which is continually out of shoes) and his wife just presented him with a new set of twins the other day. He is now trying to add the job on The Something-Else to his list.

Let us farther suppose that you are a magazine editor. You wrote this Such-and-Such book yourself. You are a very disagreeable person (we will imagine). You rejected three of my stories about my experiences as a vagabond. Farthermore, when I remonstrated with you about this over the telephone, you told me that you were very busy. When your book came out I happened to review it for three papers. I tried to do it justice although I didn't think much of the book, or of anything else that you ever did.

Now, reflecting upon the vast frailty of human nature, and considering the power of the reviewer to exercise petty personal pique, I think there is little dishonesty of this nature in reviews. The prejudice is the other way round, in "log rolling," as it is called, among little cliques of friends. Though I have known more than one case more or less like that of a reviewer man, otherwise fairly well balanced, who had a rabid antipathy to the work of Havelock Ellis. Whenever he got hold of a book of Havelock Ellis's he became blind and livid with rage.

In the period when I was a free lance reviewer, I used to review generally only books that I was particularly interested in, books on subjects with which I was familiar, books by authors whom I knew all about. And in writing my reviews I used to wait now and then for an idea. Those were happy, innocent, amateur days. That is: when my thoughts got stalled I would throw myself on a couch for a bit, or I would look out at my window, or I took a turn about Gramercy Park for a breath of air. Reviews sometimes had to be in by the following day, or, so my editor would declare to me with much vigour over the telephone, the paper would go to smash; and then he would hold them in type for three weeks. But they rarely had to be done within a couple of hours or less.

In the course of time I got down to brass tacks; I took a staff position, a desk job. It was up to me to review everything going, in a steady ceaseless grind. I began work at half past nine in the morning. When I was commuting I began earlier, taking up a book on the train. Between nine thirty and a quarter to eleven I did a book, say, on the extermination of the house-fly; from then until lunch time, three hundred words on a very pleasant novel called, for instance, "Roast Beef, Medium"; in the afternoon, three-quarters of a column on a "History of the American Negro"; winding up the day, perhaps, with a lively article about a popular book on "Submarine Diving and Light Houses"; and taking home at night the "Note Books of Samuel Butler." I began the morrow, very likely, with an "omnibus article" lumping together five books on the Panama Canal. And then, as the publishers of the latest book on art had turned in a double-column hundred-agate-line "ad" the week before, it was necessary to do something serious "for" that masterpiece. I reviewed a dictionary and a couple of cookery books. At the holiday season I polished off a jumble of Christmas and New Year's cards, a pile of picture calendars, and a table full of "juveniles." Woman suffrage, alcoholism, New Thought, socialism, minor poetry, big game hunting, militarism, athletics, architecture, eugenics, industry, European travel, education, eroticism, red blood fiction, humour, uplift books, white slavery, nature study, aviation, bygone kings (and their mistresses), statesmen, scientists, poverty, disease, and crime, I had always with me. I became a slightly bald reviewer.

Books of theology and of philosophy were given out to a theologian; books concerning the dramatic art were done by the dramatic critic; and those on music went to the music critic. We had an occasional letter from Paris on current French literature.

In addition to writing (for I was an editor), I read the "literary" galley proofs; "made up" once a week down in the composing room late at night; compiled the feature variously called in different papers Books Received, Books of the Week, or The Newest Books; and got out the correspondence of the literary department--with publishers and with fools who write in about things. I also went over the foreign exchange, that is: clipped literary notes out of foreign papers. Once a month I surveyed the current magazines. I worked in the office on every holiday of the year except Christmas and New Year's, and frequently on Sundays at home.

With a view to attracting the intellectual elite to a profession where this class is needed, I will tell you what I got for this. It should be understood, however, that I was with one of the great papers, which paid a scale of generous salaries. Mine was forty dollars a week. That is a good deal of money for a literary man to earn regularly. But--

I did, indeed, have an assistant in this office; there was a person associated with me who took the responsibility of everything in the department that was excellent. That is, I was "assistant literary editor." Few newspapers can afford to employ a chief solely for each department. It is recognised that the work of the literary editor can be economically combined with that of the dramatic editor, or with that of the art critic; or the art critic runs the Saturday supplement, or some such thing. My chief looked in every day or so, and frequently, perhaps in striving for exact honesty I should say regularly, contributed reviews. He directed the policy of the department, subject, of course, to criticism from "down stairs."

But (as I was about to say above) that regular income is very uncertain. Universities cultivate a sense of security in their professors, in order to obtain loyal service and lofty endeavour. The editorial tenure, as all men know, is a house of sand--a summer's breeze, a wash of the tide, and the editor is a refugee. I know the editor of literary pages that go far and wide, who has held down that job now for over a year. That man is troubled: none has ever stood in his shoes for much longer than that.

"Don't fool yourself," I heard a successful young journalist say the other day to a very conscientious young reviewer. "Good work won't get you anything. Play politics, office politics all the while." Doubtless sound advice, this, for any gainful employment.

Now about that prime department of the press called the business office. Many people firmly believe that all book reviews--and dramatic criticisms and editorials--are bought by "the interests." One of the principal librarians of New York holds this view of reviews. I never knew a reviewer who was bound to tell anything but the truth as he saw it. Nor have I ever written in any review a word that I knew to be false; and I believe that few reviewers do. Because, however, this or that publishing house was "a friend of ours," or because the husband of this author used to work for the paper (pure sentiment!), or that one is a friend of the wife of The Editor (caution!), it has been suggested to me by my chief that I "go easy" with certain books.

The good reviewer does go easy with most books. It is a mark of his excellence as a reviewer that he has a catholic taste, that he sees that books are written to many standards, and that every book, almost, is meet for some. It is not his business to break things on the wheel; but to introduce the book before him to its proper audience; always recognising, of course, sometimes with pleasant subtle irony, its limitations. It is only when a book pretends to be what it is not, that he damns it. All that is not business, but sensible, sensitive criticism.

To return. The business office exerts not a direct but a moral influence, so to put it, upon the literary department. Business tact must be recognised. A hostile review already in type and in the plan of the next issue may be "killed" when a large "ad" announcing books brought out by the publisher of this one so treated comes in for the next paper; and then search is made for a book from the same publisher which may be favourably reviewed. Or a hostile review may be held over until a time more politic for its release, say following several enthusiastic reviews. And there is no sense in noticing in one issue a disproportionate number of books published by one house.

In concluding my discussion I will draw two portraits of professional reviewers, one composite of a class, the other a picture of a man who stands at the top of his profession.

Seated at his desk is a little man with a pointed beard and a large bald spot on top of his head. This man has been all his life a literary hack. He has read manuscript for publishing houses; he has novelised popular plays for ha-penny papers, and dramatised trashy novels for cheap producers; he has done routine chore writing in magazine offices, made translations for pirate publishers, and picked up an odd sum now and then by a "Sunday story." He has always been an anonymous writer. He has never had sufficient intellectual character to do anything well. The downward side of middle age finds him afflicted with various physical ailments, entirely dependent upon a precarious position at a moderate salary, without influential friends, completely disillusioned, with a mediocre mind now much fagged, devoid of high ambition, and with a most unstimulating prospect before him. His attitude toward the business of book reviewing is that he wishes he had gone into the tailor business or that his father had left him a grocery store. He would not have succeeded, however, as either a tailor or a grocer, as he has even less business than literary ability. Farther, he regards himself as a gentleman, and books strike him as being more gentlemanly than trade. He has got along as well as he has, by bluff about his extensive acquaintance with literature, and his long experience in writing and publishing.

This type of reviewing man says that he does the thing "mechanically." About the new crop of juvenile books, let us say, he says the same thing again now that he said four years ago. "One idea every other paragraph," is his principle, and he thinks it sufficient in a review. Sufficient, that is, to "get by." And whatever gets by, in his view, "pleases them just as well as anything else." Our friend of this character has a considerable number of stock remarks which may at any time be written very rapidly. One of these sentences is: "This book furnishes capital reading;" another says that this book "is welcome;" and he holds as a general principle that, "the reviewer who reads the book is lost."

Occasionally, very occasionally, there is found among reviewers the type of old-fashioned person who used to be called a "man of letters." This is a wild dream, but it would be a grand thing for American reviewing if every one of our young reviewers could have for an hour each week the moral benefit of the society of such a man. I know one who now has been active in New York literary journalism for something like thirty years--a fine intellectual figure of a man. He makes his living out of this, indeed, but his interest is in the thing itself, in literature. He has all that one really needs in the world, he has the esteem of the most estimable people, and he follows with unceasing pleasure a delightful occupation. He is as keen to-day, he declares, on the "right way of putting three words together" as he was when he began to write. His mellow, witty, and gentlemanly style is saturated with the sounds, scents and colours of literature. The exercise of his cultivated judgment is not a trade, but a sacred trust. To look at him and to think of his admirable career is to realise the dignity of his calling--discussing with authority the books of the world as they come from the press.


(The end)
Robert Cortes Holliday's essay: That Reviewer "Cuss"

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