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Feud

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

  1. Strivers Row
    Used Hardcover $6.50
  2. The Golden Age (American Chronicle) Used Trade Paper $3.95

  3. Strivers Row
    Used Hardcover $6.50


Kevin Baker is the author of Strivers Row

7 Responses to "Feud"

  1.  
    Jim John March 7th, 2006 at 10:56 am

    Respectable newspaper? We're talking about The Wall St. Journal, right? I'm pretty sure they test the effects of paper cuts from their newspaper on laboratory animals before sending each edition out--not for any scientific purpose, just because they're evil capitalist bastards.

  2.  
    him March 7th, 2006 at 3:32 pm

    it seems perhaps the line cannot be drawn. and why should it? a freedom hitherto unknown on earth (the "one" which so many of us proclaim to be searching for), would be the absolute freedom to say as you please, and while i'm friend to neither fascist nor anti-semite, it would not become me to act as their oppressor either.

    granted, the wall street journal should be a bit more responsible when employing someone who uses their politics as a smokescreen while personally attacking someone, but then powells.com would have raise their standards of responsibility as well and not allow commentators to besmirch one corporate entity (the wall street journal) with epithets that could most easily be pointed at themselves.

    it's powell's books inc. don't ya know.

  3.  
    Vladmir March 7th, 2006 at 5:13 pm

    Kevin,
    There is no line. And, no one can force another to be conscientious or empathetic. Integrity is forged and nurtured from within. Considering we're living in a world full of bigotry, I say it's better that those who harbour prejudices against, fear of, and hatred toward others show their true colors so that we know who we're dealing with. From there, maybe there's a fighting chance to transform the humanscape, because, if if goes on suppressed or twisted through a guise, nothing will ever shift.

  4.  
    Big Daddy March 8th, 2006 at 5:35 am

    Uh, not sure what "him" is talking about. Defnding a neo-fascist but being angry at Powell's for being a corporation? The intellectual muddle of "him" shouldn't take away from what Mr. Baker brings up, which is the lameness of most book reviews.Why would the Journal assign such an idiot to review a major writer's work? Perhas because books are now the orphans of the entertainment family?

  5.  
    TTBear March 8th, 2006 at 9:28 pm

    As entertainment -- "see what an extremist makes of this reputable work!" -- I suppose the review could be interesting. (And it does in fact sound interesting in that respect.) But I read book reviews to learn about the book, not the reviewer. Seems to me the questions are 1) whether a reviewer should approach the material objectively, and then -- this is the key part -- 2) whether the publisher has a responsibility to acknowledge any bias up front. My answers are 1) it depends on the context; and 2) absolutely. But I'm with Vladamir: Don't silence radicals because then we won't know what we're up against.

    Kevin, I completely understand your frustration -- you never stood a chance at a fair evaluation, and the readers of that review thought they were getting one. Who does the WSJ serve by recruiting such a biased voice? Maybe it sells more newspapers. (What am I saying, "maybe"? What else does the WSJ care about?)

  6.  
    Marc S. Lamb May 14th, 2006 at 11:18 am

    Kevin,

    Sage O' is a real "Bush sucks" kinda guy. Thus he is to be welcomed with open arms by liberals one and all. Even he and George McGovern are chummy. Seriously, just google his name and "Come Home, America," and you'll see what I mean. Happy reading!

    Marc

  7.  
    MB April 9th, 2007 at 9:04 pm

    Did any of you so much as search Powell's site for Kauffman's books? Here, check him out: http://www.powells.com/s?kw=bill+kauffman

    Sound like a fascist?

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