The Sicilian Defense
January 10, 2014 | by Max Ross
Dear Mr. Ross,
Thank you for sharing with us your review of Claudia Roth Pierpont’s Roth Unbound. The piece is colorful and sharp, and it is with regret that we say it does not suit our needs at this time.
Too much of the writing reflects back to the writer himself—to you yourself. (And, inexplicably, to your father.) While we certainly don’t mind personal inflection, and even tolerate the insertion of an occasional “I,” a review must be grounded more firmly in the subject or book under consideration. (And less so in the reviewer’s father.)
Critiques such as yours are redolent of ego. We say this not as admonishment, but as something of which you may want to be aware as you continue what looks to be a promising writing career. We wish you the best of luck in placing this piece elsewhere, and will be happy to consider your queries in the future.
The New York Review of Books
The difficulties began when I attempted to write, for The New York Review of Books, a review of Claudia Roth Pierpont’s critical biography of Philip Roth. My intention was simple: to demonstrate that I appreciated Roth’s work with a higher degree of sophistication than Pierpont. But articulating my Sophisticated Appreciation was tough to do. At first this didn’t bother me—an inability to articulate one’s Sophisticated Appreciation, I reasoned, may itself be proof of how complex and nuanced that appreciation is.
I’d been invited to submit to NYRB based on the success of an essay I’d written about Philip Roth for The New Yorker’s Web site. (An NYRB editor had e-mailed me to commend its “substantial humorousness,” and asked me to pitch an idea his way.) I wanted badly to be published in NYRB. I had some friends who’d been published in NYRB, and I was jealous of them. Moreover, my father is an avid NYRB reader—“It’s so wonderfully stuffy,” is his line; “the official periodical of leather armchairs and lowballs of Scotch”—and placing an essay in its pages, I believed, would recompense him for having twice paid my tuition to the universities where I’d learned to appreciate things sophisticatedly. (He would be pleased, too, to learn that I’d written something that wasn’t about him, as opposed to everything else I’d published—excepting the Roth piece—since finishing graduate school.)
NYRB’s editors expected six thousand words from my desk. Yet for several days I was too nervous to begin. More than anything else, the review would need to establish for NYRB’s readership how intelligent I was—establishing the writer’s intelligence seemed the purpose of most NYRB reviews, and I have always liked to fit neatly into prevailing systems. If it didn’t prove my intelligence, though, my review could only prove my lack thereof, and nothing was more terrifying to me than the idea of being exposed as intellectually inadequate.
* * *
Although I was unsure what to say about Philip Roth, I knew what I would say about Pierpont’s biography of him—even before I’d read it. I would say that her biography was unnecessary.
Evidence indicates that among the essential criteria for landing a review in NYRB is the ability to quote with offhand-seeming ease from Nabokov’s Lectures on Russian Literature; with this in mind, I paged through my copy of the Lectures until I’d found a passage that succinctly discredited Pierpont’s book:
“I hate tampering with the precious lives of great authors and I hate Tompeeping over the fence of those lives,” Nabokov says. “I hate the vulgarity of ‘human interest,’ I hate the rustle of skirts and giggles in the corridors of time.”
If I leveraged these words correctly, I could indicate that Pierpont’s biography, and any literary biography, was superfluous and irresponsible.
Roth Unbound, bound in its manila envelope from FSG, sat on my bedside table. I hoped it wouldn’t be good. I hoped it would be bad. I hoped it would be bad so I could say terrible things about it. But even as I wanted to say terrible things about it, I knew I couldn’t. Pierpont is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker, and I, too, would like to contribute to The New Yorker, and not just to its Web site, which is of course read only by undignified nonsubscribers. I sensed it wouldn’t be politic to broadcast Pierpont’s inadequacies in my review; editors of The New Yorker read NYRB—I’d heard that somewhere—and would not take kindly toward my having slandered one of their writers. So Roth Unbound remained in its envelope for a long while as I considered how to go about tactfully reproving it, and how to convey my Sophisticated Appreciation of Roth.
After several days, I came up with an appropriate first sentence: “Philip Roth is the greatest American author of the last fifty years.”
The phrase was deceptively resonant. By confining Roth’s greatness to fifty years, one would sense the reviewer’s expertise with the whole of American literature, and trust him (me) to properly adjudicate who belonged where in the canon’s hierarchy; likewise, by limiting Roth’s greatness to the domain set of American authors, the reviewer’s fluency with international literature would be implied. I was off to an auspicious start. Moreover, I’d begun to hit on something that indicated my Sophisticated Appreciation.
While researching my essay for The New Yorker’s website, I’d discovered a discontinuity in Roth’s work: his avatar, Nathan Zuckerman, had graduated from high school in both 1949 and 1950. (“I left [high school] in forty-nine,” he says in Zuckerman Unbound; but in American Pastoral he attends his high school reunion, which explicitly convenes 1950’s graduates.) I thought it would be clever to suggest that, rather than being an error on Roth’s part, this temporal hiccough was intentional, a knowing parallax of time, which only Roth’s keenest readers would recognize. As they struggle for moral and sexual freedom, Roth’s characters are also caught up in a struggle for temporal liberation. This constituted the most absolute freedom conceived of in the last half century of American literature. If I developed the thought deeply enough—I could sense it lurking, like a shark about to crest—something profound was sure to arise.
“How goes the Roth review?” my father asked.
“The ducks,” I said, “are beginning to align.”
“Ah, excellent. Excellent. Is that where you want your queen?”
We were in his living room, playing chess, as we always do, regardless of whether or not we are actually playing chess. He hadn’t yet removed his necktie—he’s an attorney, a specialist in corporate securities fraud—but was going around in his socks, which were from Paul Smith’s boutique and patterned with black and yellow triangles. A copy of Roth’s The Counterlife was on the couch beside us; my father, after not having read him for a decade, had asked me to lend him a Roth novel he might like.
“The thing about Roth—and I’d totally forgotten,” he said now, moving his rooks back to their starting corners (I should not have wanted my queen there), “is that unlike a James Joyce, whom you sense, in the Dubliners stories, as this very observant presence hanging out in the parlor doorway—the thing about Roth is that he’s in the room.”
“He has an immediacy,” I said.
“And that part about the different kinds of Jews—how delightful is that? What’s it go like? ‘The Jew that I was was neither more nor less than the Jew I wished to be.’ Ha! ‘I was not Jewish survivor or a Jewish socialist or a believing Jew, a scholarly Jew, a Jewish xenophobe.’ And on and on. I don’t remember it exactly.” (He was going nearly verbatim.)
“‘Moloch in whom I sit lonely,’” I said, “‘Moloch in whom I dream angels.’ Moloch the this. Moloch the that. Moloch the something else.”
“Yes! Howl! I hadn’t thought of that. Roth’s very Howl-y sometimes. It’s musical.”
We continued to play, but I was preoccupied, trying to figure out how to include mention in my review of Roth’s musicality and in-the-roomness—my father, as he often did, had hit on essential entities that I’d overlooked. What a cruel, effective brand of psychological abuse he’d perpetrated on me: to esteem intellect, to bear a son who esteems intellect, to remain intellectually superior to that son.
I tried out the King’s Indian Attack, but hamstrung a bishop early on and forfeited the match.
There’s an electric piano in my bedroom. It is a metaphor for whatsoever I may choose. I am also adept at playing it. I studied the Suzuki method. My ear is accurate in pitch. I prefer Beethoven to Bach.
My deadline for NYRB was approaching. I’d read, by this point, most, quite nearly all, of Roth Unbound. But what to say?
I looked hopefully at my electric piano.
“The harmonious chords of Roth’s fiction,” I wrote, were, in Roth Unbound, “distilled down to their single tones.” By writing about him, Pierpont had sapped Roth of his “musicality,” of his “recursively musical sense of timing” wherein phrases repeat themselves “like echoes in the orchestra halls where Roth sits.” All we were left with, in learning of his life, was “the cold, tuneless theory.”
The phrasing was coming together the way good phrasing comes together. Whether what I wrote was true mattered less than whether it was logical, persuasive. My fingers trembled as I typed—exactly as they trembled when I practiced Beethoven’s “Grande Sonate Pathétique.” Here and there, to grant legitimacy to the bad things I was saying, I said nice things about Roth Unbound, too (plus, I was mindful of the New Yorker editors who would read my review; they would want to see nice things written about their contributor’s book). I was distracted only by the occasional daydream regarding where in the next issue of NYRB my review would be placed—up front, where serious readers begin? Or in the middle, by the staples, so the issue would naturally open up to my critique? I hoped up front. More prestige.
I remembered, for once, to run a spell-check. The review would soon be available to NYRB’s subscribing readership and my Facebook friends. I attached the document to an e-mail and clicked “send.”
(“When’s your Roth thing coming out?” my father asked, weeks later. I looked down at the board. Victory—not mine—was four moves away. “Really soon, I think,” I said.)
Max Ross has written for The New Yorker’s Page-Turner and the New York Times.