Thursday, July 24, 2008
The Belles-Lettres Papers
Our book today is Charles Simmons' delicious little satire The Belles-Lettres Papers, in which he uses the eponymous fictitious literary review to skewer the book world in general and the world of book-reviewing in particular. Simmons is a former New York Times Book Review editor, and for a while in the late '80s when this book first appeared, the main cocktail-party game was trying to decipher which real-life literary figure corresponded to which satirical prop in the book (in which characters are given names like 'Buckram' 'Page' 'Overleaf' and 'Margin' specifically to signal their stand-in status), sort of like trying to find yourself in the Warhol Diaries, or Madonna's Sex (we here at Stevereads are on page 16 of both, coincidentally enough).
We can only hope that this parlor-game aspect of the book has permanently faded away, so that the many winning qualities of the book can stand in the spotlight they deserve. This is a short book and by all indicators an angry book, so it was in all likelihood written quickly, at white heat. But it sparkles with wit and malice all the same, in the grand tradition of white-heat satire and invective (see here the famous story of how quickly Erasmus' The Praise of Folly was written).
The story - such as it is - centers on Frank Page, who comes to work for the venerable literary review The Belle-Lettres Papers and quickly becomes acquainted with its wide variety of kooks and eccentrics. These kooks and eccentrics are drawn with such miniaturist skill that readers are tempted to do some sort of cross-referencing with Brendan Gill's Here at the New Yorker, and that's harmless enough, as long as those readers are also paying attention to the scintillating give-and-take of the writing and the dialogue, some of the latter of which is worthy of Neil Simon:
"For instance," [said Mr. Margin, Page's editor] "what do you think happens when two members of the staff disagree about a book?"
"Don't you leave that to the reviewer?" I said.
"Ah!" He was pleased by my question. "But which reviewer do I send it to, the hard reviewer or the soft reviewer, the John Simon or the Anthony Burgess?"
"I've seen soft reviews by John Simon," I said.
"Ah! But let's say this book is not by a dead European. Rather by a living American, moreover by an American who for years has been getting away with murder ..."
"Heller?" I said.
Mr. Margin blanched. "I was thinking more of ..."
"Styron?" I said.
He didn't blanch, but he did clear his throat. "Let's just say an overrated writer. In fact, you have illustrated my point. I say 'overrated writer,' but what do I mean but overrated in my opinion? So let's say there's another member of the staff who doesn't think the writer is overrated at all, and he thinks this new book is a masterpiece. Whom do we send it to, John Simon or Anthony Burgess?"
"John Simon," I said.
"All right, why?"
"He's good at masterpieces, real and fake."
"And Anthony Burgess?" Mr. Margin said.
"He's good at real masterpieces but not fake ones."
"He doesn't say they're fake, he just uses his fake voice."
Mr. Margin's eyes narrowed. "I can see you're a clever young man," he said.
Simmons can be as mean as he likes (and he's so good at it, readers will like it too), but lurking behind the various jaded shenanigans in The Belles-Lettres Papers (the book and the fictional review) is a bruised heart that still believes in the potential worth of criticism done right. This is something of a godsend for those of us currently engaged in book-criticism, since we'd otherwise hate to think of it as a duplicitous waste of time. Criticism can be done right, without cemented cynicism or pasty parochialism. Books can be judged on their merits, with candor and humor, under the abiding assumption that while the subjective experience of reading might not admit dissection, the objective result of writing can be scrutinized for fun and profit (although not material profit, as the old saying had it, the best way to make a small fortune in publishing is ... to start with a large fortune).
So when Simmons puts an entirely worthy work-premise into the pompous mouth of Mr. Margin for the purpose of mocking it, we can chuckle right along with the rest of the readers, but we also feel a little pang:
"We have an odd and, I might add, attractive gathering of tempers and temperaments at Belles Lettres. Our sensibilities range from the vigorously vulgar to the exquisite and even effete. I like to think we represent a critical construct of the American readership. So that when we say yes to a book we say yes within the confines of the book's intentions. We do not say no to mysteries, we say no to bad mysteries. We do not say yes to poetry, we say yes to good poetry. And if a book maintains an opinion, nay a bias, nay a prejudice, we try to state who we are and what we stand for, and then judge the book on the quality of its argument. What I'm saying is that at Belles Lettres we are interested in the how, the means, the process ... "
That may be purblind bombast when it's uttered (and the book's plot-explosions just get funnier and shriller as that bombast is shredded in every possible way), but it nevertheless has a grace to it. We like to think Simmons never lost the hope that a review organ could be run that way, although it's certainly to be wondered how much success such a doctrine would enjoy at the Times. And who knows? Human nature being what it is, maybe all literary reviews are destined to fail of such high ideals. Who knows what rough freelancer is even now slouching toward Bethlehem to write The Open Letters Papers?