In 1987, Charles Simmons published The Belles Lettres Papers, a roman à clef about his years as an editor at The New York Times Book Review. It is certainly the funniest thing ever to have been written about that journalistic organ. It is also, alas, a devastatingly accurate portrayal of the kind of intellectual fatuousness that has made American cultural journalism today such a tawdry business. Of course, The Belles Lettres Papers is a work of satire. And even if certain personalities are identifiable, many of the book’s most hilarious episodes are clearly a gross exaggeration. They must be. We suppose it is possible—just—that The New York Times would, as Mr. Simmons describes in his fiction, someday appoint an ignorant vulgarian as editor-in-chief of the book review in order to intimidate the staff and get rid of people who have outlived their usefulness. But surely Mr. Simmons strains credulity when he pictures this newly appointed editor acceding to suggestions that someone called “John Hershey” be asked to review a new chocolate cookbook or that a book on entomology be assigned to “Gregor Samsa.” Such extravagances are scarcely more believable than the rumor going around a few years ago that a top editor at one of New York’s most prestigious publishing houses announced a new series devoted to classics of world literature featuring such distinguished translators as “F. Scott Moncrieff.” It’s amusing to contemplate, but is obviously fantastic.
Reality does have a way of overtaking satire these days, however. And when, in July, we read about the Modern Library’s much-publicized list of the one hundred best novels written in English since 1900, we had to wonder whether Mr. Simmons wasn’t perhaps a master of understatement. In The Belles Lettres Papers, when a company boss called Mrs. Tooling complains that the review doesn’t use its literary clout and influence effectively, a young editor facetiously asks why they didn’t “establish who the twenty-five best writers in America are? One, two, three, four… .”
Mrs. Tooling stared at me and said, “The twenty-five best writers in America. One, two, three, four.”
“And no ties,” I said.
“And no ties,” she said. “What’s your name?”
“Frank Page, ma’am, but I was only kidding.”
She didn’t hear me. “Marge, this is what we need. We’ll make the front page of The Times. There’ll be editorials, counterlists… . Now we’re getting somewhere. One, two, three, four… .”
Mr. Simmons imagined a list of only twenty-five names. Harry Evans, the former head of Random House (which owns the Modern Library), wanted a list of one hundred. When the list was first announced, press accounts suggested that a panel of ten prominent writers (including A. S. Byatt, William Styron, and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.) had concocted the ranking. In fact, they had been presented with a list of some four hundred titles (including many from the Random House list, e.g., twenty-one books by Gore Vidal) and began by making their selection from that. They did not rank anything until the end, when they were presented with five titles that appeared on everyone’s lists and were asked to arrange them in order of merit. These five, as ordered by the panelists, were James Joyce’s Ulysses, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, and, most improbably, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The rest of the ordering was done by members of the Modern Library board.
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., described the exercise as “a splendid parlor game.” For Harry Evans, it was clearly a splendid marketing ploy. Never mind that he hoped to acquire the rights to publish all the books that made it onto the list. The amount of publicity the stunt generated—including, as it happens, front-page and editorial stories in the Times, as well as plenty of counterlists—could not be bought at any price. Some people have suggested that Mr. Evans and the Modern Library deserve thanks because, after all, sales of the books that made the list--especially Ulysses, which was number one—have soared. In our view, however, the whole episode has a certain Barnum & Bailey aspect to it. This is a fine thing in a circus; it is distinctly less agreeable when what is at issue are not clowns and dancing elephants but serious works of literature. Christopher Cerf, the chairman of the Modern Library (and son of Bennett Cerf, who started the imprint seventy years ago), summed it up perhaps better than he knew: “I think the process is to some degree a scam,” Mr. Cerf said, “but it’s a good scam. I mean that in the best sense of the word.” Our dictionary lists two definitions for scam: “a fraudulent business scheme” and “a swindle.” We wonder which definition Mr. Cerf considers the “best sense” of the word?
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 17 Number 1, on page 2
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