Modest Proposals from a Spent Book Reviewer
New York Magazine 1974


MY WELL-SHARPENED NO. 1 PENCIL is just touching up the last review of the week. Layouts have been made and pictures of authors agreed to. Another weekly Book Section of the magazine is about to go to press.

I should be happy. We all should be happy. But what do I hear?  A kind of keening noise just outside my door. I get up and tiptoe out to the room adjacent where waves-of-the-future books are collected for sampling and possible review or rejection. There stands my amiable assistant up to her knees in literature. Big fat rich square books (for Christmas is at our throats again), treacly children's books, sweaty how­to books, hearty gardening books, cute cookery books, creaky Gothics, sex books, hex books, and sad faceless little novels. Behind her are stacked high­rise apartment buildings composed of those old standbys that Russell Baker once so wisely condemned to immolation, books with titles that contain the words "Strategy," "Crisis," "Atlantic," "Society," "Power," "The West," "Danger," "Freedom," "World," "Survival," and "Creative," not to mention such newer candidates as "Commune," "Biosphere," "Ethology" and the "New Populism."

It is all too much for the poor girl. Her lip trembles and she says: "I have to keep telling myself that I've always loved books."

Fantasy? Far from it. For no one today who simply sees and occasionally buys the shiny new books piled up in Scribner's or Brentano's can possibly imagine the horrendous truths or appreciate the restraint of George Orwell when he wrote: "Until one has some kind of professional relationship with books one does not discover how bad the majority of them are." That was some 30 years ago, in London, where the public was discriminating, publishers were proud of their reputations, and the number of books published was modest.

Today we are told that 30,000 new books a year are issued. Of these only about 6,000 come to my office, and only about 300 are selected for review. A piece of cake, you might say. And so it would be if we just threw dice to decide which to review, or skimmed off the easiest handful of notable entries, forgetting the rest. Trying to give those 5,500 also-rans something like a fair shake these days is what does us in. It has never reduced me to tears, mind you. I was hardened by the New Criticism at Harvard, descended into the hell of graduate-school English, and acquired a tough hide in Europe, where for a period I had to commission and edit a whole series of doorstopper books mainly written by British authors who seemed to do all their work while lying on their backs picking bananas. Besides, books have given me more pure pleasure (man and boy) than anything I would care to name, with the possible exception of children, sailboats and morning sunlight. But after a number of years as a books editor and regular book reviewer for a magazine, I feel - when faced by that threatening weekly pile of books - a sinking heart, a protective numbness, a clear desire to be somewhere else.

In criticizing book publishing, of course, book reviewers should be fair - but not too fair. Some 90 per cent of all trade books are published in New York. Most New York publishers publish some good books; some New York publishers publish mostly good books. And if many publishers seem more adept at signing contracts and attending cocktail parties than shaping paragraphs or skillfully psyching writers into necessary visions and revisions, there are reasons. Economy. Real editing, any publisher will tell you, costs a lot of money, often with very little hope of financial return. Sheer overhead and inertia. Publishers have expensive salesmen who need product to sell (any product), and editors who feel they must bring in so many titles to justify their jobs, as well as ongoing contracts with printers, etc.

Publishers are also plagued by high costs, archaic distribution, and public apathy. (A very good, enthusiastically reviewed, perfectly accessible novel may sell considerably less than 4,000 hardback copies; within living memory a celebrated, thoughtful and readable European novelist won the Nobel Prize and his United States publisher, which had just glumly remaindered his works, found itself desperately buying them back at extravagant prices.) Perhaps most important, very few decently written books go unpublished in the United States because - to put it mildly - the exquisite, disciplined anguish of putting one word after another in a lonely room somewhere is not presently much encouraged, and the simplest of writing skills are neglected at all levels of United States education. By and large, publishers do not reject treasure and publish trash - they publish what they get. The simplistic truth for United States publishers? They should publish far fewer books.

Not even this unworldly critic is under any illusion that such a simple reform will be simple to arrive at. Book publishing houses, we keep being reminded, are big business with their shares often listed on the Stock Exchange, and their new owners too frequently giant corporations with a yen for tax write-offs or culture, or both. But reading books should make men a tiny bit more scrupulous (or maybe just it little less inclined to do harm openly). Publishing should behave as if it were a uniquely responsible and thoughtful business. And if that is not possible, in an age when even Richard Nixon has been caught admitting that a ballooning Gross National Product is not necessarily an index of national health and virtue, there is no reason why book publishers should exhibit less restraint or a greater proclivity towards pollution, than, say, General Motors. General Motors, at least, sells about 99 per cent of its output (however baneful), but adult trade publishers regularly have to recycle, bum, eat or drop into Lake Erie an average of 20 per cent of their production. (A current horror story about one of the recycling houses tells of a woeful first novelist, worried about his release date, who discovered that his book had been printed and recycled without ever being sent to bookstores. Its title, it seems, greatly resembled a book that had already struck out.)

Recently, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich and McGraw-Hill announced cutbacks in certain kinds of trade books, but both expect their over-all volume of business to go on expanding. And production has been steadily rising. In short, publishing less, like smoking less, will require agonizing changes of habit and much character. Books are normally regarded as a good thing, and it is still almost impossible to convince Americans that you can get too much of a good thing. When the nineteenth Century for the first time grew uneasy about population growth, Malthus encouraged war, and Jeremy Bentham preached chastity to serving-girls. The one was not desirable, the other proved ineffective. To produce fewer books, individual publishers will need a program, full of apparently outrageous suggestions - like chewing betel nut to give up cigarettes, or consulting a hypnotist to cure fear of flying.

With some humility, and with tongue not entirely in cheek, this reviewer offers the following suggestions:

Ultimate output level. No publishing house should publish more books than its editor-in-chief, say, or its president can (along with normal duties) carefully read, consider and then defend in detail at a dinner party of his most literate friends - who will, if possible, have also read the works in question. Burden of proof to be on the publisher. This standard, applied on a year-in, year-out basis, I reckon, would limit each house to well under 50 titles a year.

Preliminary steps. Until production is brought under control no editor should undertake or commission any new title unless it shows real promise of being in some way useful or distinguished - which does not mean that it be either complex or demanding. A how-to book truly distinguished for its clarity and simplicity is at present a very rare book indeed. Even with the most perceptive and rigorous planning by editors, however, well-conceived books will need rewriting, or scrapping entirely upon completion. In early phases of the program publishers would not suffer financial loss as a result. Like farmers who are recompensed for ungrown wheat, publishers should get an allowance for unpublished corn.

Truth in advertising. Lawsuits occasionally are brought against companies that too flagrantly distort their products. Being the most literate of industries, book publishing should lead the way by establishing a measure of accuracy in jacket blurbs. For starters, they might use a simple description of contents instead of all those dots, exclams! and adjectives. An interim suggestion: until all presently commissioned books are brought out, publishers might adapt the"Sears, Roebuck catalogue technique of soberly listing appliances in three accurate categories: "good quality" (cheapest), "better quality," and "Sears' Best." One of the small by­products of such practices would be to reduce the pressure on sought-after jacket blurb contributors like Kurt Vonnegut and J. K. Galbraith, thus, presumably, leaving them freer to do their real work.

A recall procedure. Under pressure from Ralph Nader and the Government, the big automobile companies have recalled hundreds of thousands of models for correction and improvement. Since the power of example is great it would be advisable, in the next six months or so, for a big publisher, of his own free will, to recall all copies of a book that is below the publisher's standards for, say, clarity, grace, or in the case of non-fiction, accuracy. (Last year when McGraw-Hill got caught holding the bag for both Chief Red Fox and Clifford Irving, some other publishers piously asserted to The New York Times that "it couldn't happen here." Perhaps. But several years ago, as a book review editor, I spent some time and money proving that a book published here, after making a hit in France, had 25 pages stolen almost verbatim from the journal of a Spanish priest. I thought to advise the New York publishing house about this. Its reaction: "That's not our business.")

Farrar, Straus & Giroux is one of the best publishers in New York. For that very reason, if it should recall all 1972 models of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's best-selling August 1914 to have a new translation installed, the effect might be dramatic and salubrious.

A radical measure. It would be totally unfair for publishers to be asked to cut back their lists and defend better standards of writing in this Spartan way with no help from the surrounding culture. As part of a long-term program, American high school and college English departments should be asked to exercise a parallel restraint. Those few English majors who can write simply and cogently, instead of being encouraged to parlay this rare but limited skill into a career in journalism or fiction writihg, should be systematically urged to write their parents more, or nudged into careers in sociology.  This should improve the quality of manuscripts submitted to publishers in various ways.

Hot topics.  A great problem is quality control and publishing overkill, but a prime source of public information and publishing revenue is the Hot Topic book. In recent years we have more or less endured Black Studies, Indian Exposes, the Occult, Ecology, the Orgasm, Free Schools, Touch Me! Groups, Women's Lib, and all those books which use the behavior of the star-nosed mole to justify gloomy conclusions about the future of urban life and the New York subway system.  The reviewers' problem with such books is exactly the same as the public's: how to find the one book out of dozens that really covers the topic, or says something new about it, while avoiding all the other titles that are at best pale copies, at worst the result of outright untruth in packaging. I submit that the problem should be handled by the publishers who now seem to ignore it.

Much of the waste and duplication could be avoided if an ultimate output level were established. But a good deal of overlap is unavoidable under present competitive conditions. Tastes differ. Readers are gullible. Topics are in the air. Publishers get ideas and receive manuscripts unilaterally. What may be necessary is a little benign restraint of trade, of the kind so inefficiently denied to U.S. corporations under the Sherman Antitrust Act. When a new Hot Topic is loosed on the country, a publisher's standing committee should meet and compare the quality of works in progress on that subject. Some publishers might be asked to withdraw inferior merchandise - if possible, long before books are completed. The decision to do so might be reached through a majority vote of the attending publishers - or by shooting dice or Indian leg wrestling between rival trade editors in the event that the penalised publisher had read Marcuse and believed that in a manipulated consumer economy majority rule is sheer tyranny.

These suggestions offer a short and easy way to help publishers at least think about reducing their lists.  lf they choose to take action the publishing world might very well need some sort of neutral outside figure like the commissioner of baseball, to help work out modalities and uphold ground rules. It would take someone with the forbearance of Rudolf Bing, and the faith in freedom of B.F. Skinner.  But, no doubt such a man could be found.