You thought your reviews were harsh?

One of my research tasks here at Friedsam Memorial Library’s Merton Archives was NOT to peruse their entire collection of Jubilee magazine, a crazy Catholic arts and culture magazine that flourished from 1953 to 1966. But I couldn’t resist, being utterly fascinated with that now-extinct, almost quaint, Catholic intelligentsia milieu. I particularly enjoyed Wilfrid Sheed’s snarky but splendid reviews of then current, now classic, movies of the era (about The Nun’s Story, he writes: “Compared with the usual run of religious marzipan, it would have to be called an adult movie.”

And then, in the Sept. 1962 issue, is this scathing take on Philip Roth’s second novel after Goodbye Columbus, a book called Letting Go. The reviewer is the late drama critic Richard Gilson, perhaps better known for a memoir describing his conversion from Judaism to Catholicism and then his rejection of Catholicism altogether. The Jubilee review’s title was: When an Author Lets Go; Or, the Corrupting Influence of $20,000. (which I guess was a pretty good advance for 1962).  “…Despite intermittent virtues, a massive failure and a depressing failure, although, if we are still educable, an exemplary one. It teaches the lesson that you shouldn’t attempt Everest with equipment designed for Mount Marcy, or swim the Hellespont with a heavy cold. Or get rich too fast.”  And then he goes on: “Philip Roth may yet become a novelist. But only when he stops making like one: A trim unfettered cat is better, and more effective, than a cat in a lion’s skin.”

And of course, Philip Roth is one of our literary lions today, while Gilson is one of those guys you have to Google. Now I’ve never read Letting Go, so I couldn’t tell you whether Gilson was on or off base about it. But the lesson here is…?? Things are pretty funny in retrospect. And also, vituperative reviews are probably not worth worrying about.

But there’s a big difference between vituperative reviews of the 1960s and today’s potshots on Amazon. First of all, reviews used to be longer…and better written. You can still see excellent long-form criticism in the New York Times and other literary review magazines, but the trend seems to be that reviewers won’t waste their time with a book unless they like it, and want to promote it. And truth be told, watching one writer get creatively snarky with another can be a lot of fun.  Today’s bad reviews are usually just stupidly snarky, mean without justification or any real insight behind the knives and arrows, such as:  “Interesting idea but someone should have proofread this.” (Hmm, where did that one come from…?)

A great review, I think, is one that is reader-friendly and not the work of a self-involved reviewer. Even a pan can have touches of altruism, presenting a balanced portrait of the book, noting both strengths and weaknesses, and giving justification for why the book was reviewed in the first place—even if it totally stinks. I can’t reprint the entire Gilson review here—there’s probably some kind of copyright issue—but it actually does do a bit of this, throwing some wan hope toward young Philip Roth: “You keep on…because [Roth] is after all a serious writer and not a contriver of fiction.”

“A contriver of fiction.” Now there’s something you want to avoid!

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