Epistolary Warfare in the Letters Section

Readers of the New York Review of Books are used to the sometimes intemperate, bordering-on-pedantic, yet-always-carefully-crafted display of bruised egos that takes up so much space toward the end of each issue. I am referring, of course, to the Letters section. Here the author, formerly delighted to find out his masterpiece was to be reviewed in the supposedly-essential resident of every serious American intellectual’s magazine rack, and finding instead to his horror that it has been subjected to a ‘scurrilous’ or ‘ignorant’ reading, has written in to complain.  The reviewer, seeing the cudgels on the floor, picks them up and joins the fray. The rest of us watch and wince.  Or go get a second helping of popcorn. (I’ve often wondered why the NYRB does not conduct online polls to see who ‘won;’ this would be a surefire crowd-pleaser and would spark many watercooler conversations aka tweetstorms.)

A confession: I often turn first to the Letters to see if any entertainment is forthcoming before settling down to browse. As a philosophy graduate student in New York in the late 1990s, I, along with some of my colleagues, found the debates between ‘senior’ academic philosophers hugely diverting: to see grown men slashing away at each other, hurt, offended, determined to set the balance right, philosophical sanguinity cast to the wind, was quite reassuring. We felt immature; it was good to know that getting a Ph.D and writing several books hadn’t helped our heroes either.

I have been reading the NYRB for a while now, so I think I’ve seen just about every variant of the angry author-versus-defiant reviewer template.  The author who sets out to reveal the reviewer’s hidden or not-so-hidden agenda; the author convinced the reviewer lacks essential reading comprehension skills; the reviewer who thinks the author is a shill or paid agent (of a variety of forces, whether political or corporate); the list goes on.

Still, there have been a couple of recent additions to this ouevre of literary jousting that are possibly noteworthy for having provided some interesting twists on well-established themes.

Exhibit Number 1: Daniel Mendelsohn reviews Allan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child. Galen Strawson jumps in to defend Allan Hollinghurst. Some intemperate language, some artfully constructed phrases; well worth a read. Deviation from template? The author hasn’t managed to get in a word yet, in deference to a defender that has already jumped into the fray. Of course, Strawson isn’t just defending Hollinghurst. He’s defending a whole literary tradition.  Who wouldn’t cast one’s so-called neutrality aside with such high stakes?

Exhibit Number 2: Helen Vendler reviews Rita Dove’s Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry. Dove fires back a 1700 word defense. Deviation from template? Vendler’s response, which was described as ‘cheeky’ by Alexander Abad-Santos of the Atlantic Wire and as ‘professional’ by Cynthia Haven of the Book Haven is a one-liner: “I have written my review and I stand by it.” I think it’s neither. The review is written and in print; there appears to be no dispute about that. And as long as Vendler doesn’t issue explicit disavowals of it, it’s pretty clear she stands by it. So the need for the gratuitous one-liner is mysterious. (Incidentally, I’ve clearly been living under a rock for the past two months; I hadn’t realized the Vendler-Dove fracas was such a  cause célèbre.)