Now that I've started my blog week at Powell's with an entry on book tours, I thought I might turn to the subject of reviews. I know what you're thinking: Great. More writerly groaning. Don't these people ever stop whining?
Well, no, as a matter-of-fact. Complaining is our main hobby. But I'm feeling a little more bloody-minded today, and I think it's time to get the knives out. Back in the nineteenth century, unscrupulous editors used to put scathing reviews on the covers of literary magazines, in the hope of starting literary feuds. They knew what they were doing.
In the interests of full disclosure, let me say first of all that the overwhelming majority of reviews I've ever received have been very favorable. I'm immensely grateful for each and every word, and of course have forgotten all of them. On the other hand, every single one of the very few negative reviews I've received has burned into my brain like little cigarette holes. But — save for raving to all my long-suffering friends and loved ones until I'm blue in the face — I have usually accepted bad notices as part of the game.
Until last month, that is, when my latest book, Strivers Row, was reviewed by a literal neo-fascist. I'm not talking about somebody whose politics are a little right-wing, mind you — a Bush Republican or, say, a member of the creationist movement. I mean a real-life, bona fide, neo-fascist.
Let me explain. The review in question appeared in the weekend Wall Street Journal, written by someone named Bill Kauffman. I had never heard of Mr. Kauffman before this, but he seemed to have it in for me. His review was unduly personal; among other things, Mr. Kauffman felt obliged to mention both his own ethnicity and my skin color — something I had never previously encountered from a reviewer. His general complaint was that I was too nice to the black characters in my novel, too mean to the Irish ones — and, unkindest cut of all, that I was not nearly the historical novelist that Gore Vidal is.
I can't pretend that I wasn't unruffled by all this. Goaded into a murderous rage would be more like it, particularly since Mr. Kauffman also grossly mischaracterized most of my work. But I just put it down to the fact that Mr. Kauffman must be a devoted Vidal fan. Maybe he had been upset by the nastiest review I have ever written myself, one ripping Vidal's novel The Golden Age in the pages of the Los Angeles Times a few years ago.
(Actually, I like some of Vidal's novels. They have everything in them except people.)
Anyway, I was grudgingly willing to accept this as one (very stupid) man's opinion until about a week later. Rooting through some library stacks for another book, and happened to come upon one of Mr. Kauffman's own works. There was its title, floating in golden letters right before my eyes — America First! by Bill Kauffman, with a "foreword by Gore Vidal."
In other words, Mr. Kauffman was now more than a fan. He was an active collaborator with Mr. Vidal. Where I come from, that's known as a conflict of interest. But even more intriguing was what was inside America First! There, indeed, was the glowing foreword by Vidal, one that referred to Mr. Kauffman as, among other things, "the sage of Batavia." More intriguing still was the text, where I found all sorts of truly nasty, anti-Semitic and racist comments from the Sage of Batavia (henceforth to be referred to as "Sage O' "), along with impassioned defenses of some of the more notorious demagogues and race-baiters to come down the pike in American history, including Father Coughlin, George Wallace, Charles Lindbergh, and Pat Buchanan. For Sage O', the Confederacy was an admirable "localist rebellion," and our involvement in nearly every war in our history — including World War II — was a huge mistake, one probably manipulated by nefarious, internationalist bankers.
In short, Sage O' is part of a populist tradition so radical that it has turned 'round bitten its own tail, becoming evermore paranoid, isolationist, and racist. Vidal himself, of course, is the reigning leader of this ragged band, a position that has led to his own anti-Semitic utterances over the years, not to mention the conspiracy theories that have crowded his later novels, or his sordid dalliance with the late Timothy McVeigh.
Now, I don't expect my reviewers to share my politics. It's even a little exciting to encounter so anachronistic a creature as Sage O', rather like catching a glimpse of a carrier pigeon, or maybe the yeti. But Mr. Kauffman's basic worldview goes beyond that of principled dissent, or noble iconoclasm. It is dependent upon a fantastical, race-based interpretation of reality. My question is whether such an individual should really be reviewing my book — or, more importantly, anyone's book — in the pages of a respectable daily newspaper.
Where is the line drawn? Just how many anti-Semitic or racist things does one have to say or write, in order to be banished from the pages of the Wall Street Journal, or any other paper? Is it all right if you've published a certain number of books? Or is it okay if you say all sorts of other outrageous things, the way Mr. Vidal likes to do?
I tried raising some of these points in a very respectful letter to the Journal's books editor, submitted through my publisher, but I have not been favored with a reply. So I will take it up with all of you... not having a literary magazine at my disposal. Just where does the right of free expression run up against the problem of empowering a neo-fascist?
Books mentioned in this post
Kevin Baker is the author of Strivers Row