Just for the sake of argument, let’s suppose the following:
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?
Here are some possible answers:
(A) Kill the review without further discussion.
(B) Rewrite and publish the review without consulting you.
(C) Insist that you rewrite the review to bring it into line with my views.
(D) Insist that you rewrite the review, leaving the opinions intact but toning down the rhetoric considerably.
(E) Sit on the review for two months, then run it in the back of the book.
(F) Run the review on time and feature it prominently, but with a disclaimer stating that it does not represent my views.
(G) Run the review on time and feature it prominently.
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. And if I did anything but (G), my guess is that you’d post a violent anti-me rant on your blog (assuming you had a blog) before the sun went down, accusing me of censorship, prior restraint, and every other awful thing you could think of.
Of course I’m talking about Leon Wieseltier’s review
of Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint in this week’s New York Times Book Review. And Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of the Book Review, is an old friend of mine (with whom I have not discussed this matter), meaning that you’re perfectly welcome to disregard anything I have to say in light of that disclosure. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the First Commandment of Book-Review Editing is that a review commissioned from a professional writer should be published essentially as is, unless it’s actionably libelous or incompetently written (by which I mean “written,” not “argued”). To kill, rewrite, or request the revision of a review because you disagree with what it says smacks of censorship, perhaps not de jure but certainly de facto, and compromises the integrity of your publication.
Like him or not–and I don’t, to put it mildly–Leon Wieseltier is a distinguished editor and writer who runs one of the most admired book-review sections in the magazine business. If you ask him to review a book for you, it’s on the assumption that you’ll run what he writes. If I asked any of you to review a book for me, it would be on the same assumption.
I’m not defending Checkpoint, which I haven’t read. I’m not defending Wieseltier, whose writing I don’t admire, meaning that I wouldn’t have asked him to review Checkpoint in the first place. I’m not defending Wieseltier’s review, which I thought inadequately argued to the point of unseriousness (I think Beatrice gets this just right). I’m not holding forth on the complexity of life in the bloody crossroads (though I think it’s worth pointing out that a novelist who writes novels with political content invites political comment–you can’t have it both ways). I’m just trying, not for the first time, to explain how the book-review business works, and to encourage the many bloggers who are understandably angry about Wieseltier’s review to ask themselves some searching questions about how they think it ought to work.
Start with this one: how would you feel if you thought a review of yours had been killed because of the political views you expressed in it? Or if the editor excused his decision to kill the review by telling you, “I don’t feel that you’ve made your case”?
Then try this one: if you were the editor of a magazine, how would you feel if your readers took it for granted that you agreed with every word printed in it?
UPDATE: The Elegant Variation responds:
I don’t think a single blogger is taking issue with Wieseltier because he evinces political ideas we might disagree with. We object because he didn’t fulfill his brief as a book reviewer. (If his piece had appeared in The Week in Review, I doubt you’d have heard a peep about it.) Let me pose yet another counter-scenario – I manage to land a NYTBR freelance gig and, reviewing a controversial novel, I hand in, word-for-word, the piece in question. What do you think my future as a reviewer would look like?
Of course I see what Mark means, but it’s beside my point: when you ask professional writers to review books for you, you should print what they write, whether you like it or not. I suspect that a lot of people who are weighing in on this issue think otherwise, and I wonder if they realize how slippery a slope they’re standing on.