While we're on the subject of CHECKPOINT, the book--or more specifically, Leon Wieseltier's rant that led off the New York Times Book Review last weekend--led Terry Teachout to pose some provocative hypotheticals about the slippery slope of handling the completion of an assigned review:
Just for the sake of argument, let’s suppose the following:After making a list of possible answers, he closes with this:
I’m the editor of an important book-review supplement. You’re a well-known professional writer of good repute. I commission a review of a controversial book from you. You submit a piece that is extremely strident in tone (but not obscene or actionably libelous) and with whose political implications I disagree very strongly. What should I do?
(G) Run the review on time and feature it prominently.Terry's point is that if you're an editor who commissions a professional writer to review a book, then there's an unspoken assumption that whatever said writer produces--as long as it's not libelous--that's exactly what will run. So when Sam Tanenhaus assigned Leon Wieselter the CHECKPOINT review, that's precisely what happened. And the firestorm began.
These things happen. They’ve all happened to me at one time or another. But if you answered anything but (G), you have no business being a book-review editor. Period. End of discussion.
In order for me to tackle this with any sort of coherence, I'm going to have to adopt the Sholom Alecheim-esque "You, you're right, but you're also right" approach. As much as I objected to the content of the review and thought that Wieselter failed to explain why he disliked Baker's book as a work of fiction, choosing to spend his time lamenting the so-called decline in public discourse in America, the idea that such a review should be killed, substantially altered or revised never entered my mind. If an editor takes the time to handpick a reviewer for a book that will likely elicit controversy, then he or she is almost certainly expecting back a piece that will either fan the flames or at least keep the controversy fires burning. And once the review runs, he or she has to don the literary equivalent of a fireproof suit to take whatever criticisms (or in extreme cases, outright abuse) such a review will yield.
Besides, when a review gets killed, everyone looks bad. Take last fall's incident at the Detroit Free Press when Carole Leigh Hutton, the Freep's executive editor, killed Carlo Wolff's review of Mitch Albom's THE FIVE PEOPLE YOU MEET IN HEAVEN. She explained in an editorial published on October 5 that she agonized over the decision but made the call because Albom was a longtime columnist for the paper and a negative review of his book might be construed as a reflection of the paper's views about Albom himself. Was it the right call? Even now, I'm not sure, but it left a bad taste in my mouth at the time and I wasn't the only one to feel that way by a longshot.
Now, L'Affaire Albom didn't involve the same issues that the Wieselter brouhaha does. But if his review had, in fact, been killed, would the people who were so critical about the review in the first place then turn around and criticize its hypothetical absence? Or if it was published, but substantially revised for political argument and/or scope, would people be harshly critical of the NYTBR's judgment in that case?
Which isn't to say that reviews should always be left alone. I can only speak of my own experience, but when I was commissioned to review for the Washington Post earlier this year, I was extremely surprised that my review ran essentially as is, with only very minor editing. I was flattered, but a little confused, because my reviews at January Magazine had undergone various degrees of editing, and still do. And thank goodness for that, because when I started reviewing, I was so wet behind the ears that I needed a crash course in mechanics and craft, and how to convey my ideas as effectively as possible. But if I chose an angle or approach, those things always remained. The framework and overall content were not touched, only refined to make my views clearer, stronger, and supported properly. Of course, I always endeavored to make the primary focus of my reviews about the book in question, keeping any angle-related tangents to a reasonable minimum.
In the end, of course, writers write and editors edit. Good editors--whether they work on novels, non-fiction, book reviews or technical documents--know when to change things, when something doesn't work and needs to be fixed. The best editors, however, know when to leave well enough alone and when to trust the writer. Sometimes their judgment turns out to be misguided or even flat-out wrong, but that's the price that often has to be paid, however dear that price turns out to be.