Critics, the old saying goes, are like mangoes: they are bitter when young and they sweeten as they mature. In 1947 the twenty three-year-old James Baldwin had yet to mature as a writer. He cut his teeth on a number of publications associated with the New York Intellectuals, recalling in the introduction to The Price of the Ticket how Saul “Sol” Levitas of the New Leader, Randall Jarell of the Nation, and Elliot Cohen and Robert Warshow of Commentary, “were all very important” to his life: “It is not too much to say that they helped to save my life.”1 For a young African American with no formal education after the age of seventeen, these editors, Baldwin suggests, saved or at least ignited his life as a writer.
Baldwin’s early reviews in the mid- to late 1940s tell us much about his engagement with the postwar literary scene. In his first review, a piece on the Russian writer Maxim Gorki, Baldwin tore into Gorki. In what would become a familiar refrain in his essays and interviews, Baldwin demanded representational complexity in literature, dismissing the rise in social realist literature. In “Maxim Gorki as Artist,” a review of the writer’s Best Short Stories published in the Nation, Baldwin observes that Gorki is “almost painfully verbose and frequently threatens to degenerate into simple propaganda.”2 Gorki’s range is not only “narrow” and “sentimental,” Baldwin declares, but his writing “remains a report.” Gorki’s failure to capture the nature of oppression, Baldwin concludes, holds “the key to the even more dismal failure of present-day realistic novelists.”3
Baldwin was no less harsh with his African American contemporaries. Baldwin’s first review of a book on black American culture was for There Was Once a Slave: The Heroic Story of Frederick Douglass by Shirley Graham—the future wife of W. E. B. Du Bois—in the Nation. Graham won the Julian Messner Award “for having written the best book combating intolerance in America,” but Baldwin has little to say about the merits of this prize-winning tome. Baldwin argues that Graham “has robbed [Douglass] of dignity and humanity by glossing over any of the abolitionist’s imperfections.” Douglass, Baldwin asserts, was “frequently misguided, sometimes pompous, gifted and no saint at all.” Graham’s portrait of Douglass, Baldwin argues, is little more than the flip-side of the “tradition that Negroes are never to be characterized as anything than amoral, laughing clowns.”4
Baldwin’s second publication on African American literature was a damning review of Chester Himes’s Lonely Crusade. Far from offering any solidarity to another black American writer, Baldwin launches into a languid yet barbed assault on the older writer: “[He uses] what is probably the most uninteresting and awkward prose I have read in recent years.” Reading more and more like a poor school report (written by a reviewer not long out of school), Baldwin’s review awards Himes “an A for ambition—and a rather awe-stricken gasp for effort,” adding that Himes “seems capable of some of the worst writing this side of the Atlantic.” Despite the plethora of novels about racial oppression, Baldwin asserts that “not one has exhibited any genuine understanding of its historical genesis or contemporary necessity or its psychological toll.”5
James Baldwin’s career is, I think, a productive place to start a discussion of the function of the book review. Not only did he start his literary career as reviewer, but his own novels would later be subjected to what Michael Thelwell has described as “some of the most fatuous, inept, and at times downright dishonest criticism” that he had ever seen. As a reviewer, Baldwin’s early pieces tell us much about his own views on the status of the novel; as a novelist, the reviews he received shaped his legacy and reputation. The critical reception of Baldwin’s fiction from the 1950s to the late 1970s is also a useful reminder of how reviews reflect changing social and literary tastes; how reviews can tell as much about shifting attitudes to, say, black American literature and homosexuality, as they do about the novels under review. Another Country (1962) is a useful case in point. According to Thelwell, Another Country deeply unsettled its white reviewers because “no previous novel by a Negro has ever appropriated this function [writing about white consciousness] so completely, probingly, and relentlessly.” Thelwell concludes that “the [white] reviewers were just not prepared to have their class prerogative of defining and interpreting the dynamics of their own social experience assumed by this black man from Harlem.”6 Baldwin himself suggested that his novel might trouble readers because there were no comparisons in the American novel. In an interview with John Hall, Baldwin pointed out that “A lot of people in that book [Another Country] had never been seen in the English language before,” adding that there were “no antecedents” for his protagonist, Rufus Scott.7
Reviewers of Another Country were also perturbed by the graphic descriptions of sex. Augusta Strong wrote that Another Country “begins and ends in an animal comprehension of sex,”8 a curiously vague comment that says much about the reviewer’s views on sexual mores. Stanley Hyman even suggested that Baldwin had made the sex scenes graphic to help sell the book, implying that Another Country was “pornographic.”9 Reviews of Baldwin’s second novel, Giovanni’s Room (1956) also reveal much about prevailing attitudes towards sexuality. Although a handful of reviewers commended Baldwin’s sensitive treatment of homosexuality, most critics praised the novel’s style while dismissing its content.10 Charles Rolo, for example, begins by lauding Baldwin as a writer “endowed with exceptional narrative skill, poetic intensity of feeling, and a sensitive command of language.” But Rolo quickly adds—in a curiously sexual rhetoric—“This endorsement is made despite the fact that Mr. Baldwin’s subject is one of which I have had my fill.”11 Like Rolo, James Ivy bemoaned the fact that such beautiful writing should be wasted on such an ugly theme. In a review dismissively titled “The Faerie Queens,” Ivy concluded that it was a pity that “so much brilliant writing should be lavished on a relationship that by its nature is bound to be sterile and debasing.”12
Critics of Baldwin’s later fiction were less troubled by the author’s accounts of homosexual and bisexual relationships. By the time he had published Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone in 1968, critics had pronounced a postmortem on Baldwin as a novelist.
Eliot Fremont-Smith’s review in the New York Times of Tell Me How Long caught the prevailing critical mood. It was, the critic wrote, “a disaster in virtually every particular—theme, characterization, plot, rhetoric.”13 Aside from David Lloren’s emphatic view that Baldwin “had without question . . . written the most important novel of this crucial decade in American history,” and Isa Kapp’s more subdued praise, most reviewers lamented Baldwin’s fall from stylistic grace.14 For Mario Puzo, this was a “one dimensional novel with mostly cardboard characters,” concluding, like Guy Davenport, that this was a work of social protest that lacked narrative skill.15 Overall, most reviewers saw Baldwin’s last novel of the sixties as the fulfillment of his decline as a novelist, illustrated by Granville Hick’s comment that the novel “raises perplexing questions about Baldwin’s future.”16 Some reviewers, like Nelson Algren, were clearly ruffled by the descriptions of homosexuality. Algren tellingly writes that “the author’s indignation is fired less by racism than by heterosexuality,” and refers to Baldwin’s prose as “sashaying.”17 Most critics, however, suggested that Baldwin’s engagement with black radical politics had a detrimental effect on his prose. For Irving Howe, Tell Me How Long was replete with “speechmaker’s prose,” a novel written to demonstrate Baldwin’s new militant rhetoric, but one that resulted in “literary suicide.”18 Mario Puzo concluded by suggesting that it was time for Baldwin “to forget the black revolution and start worrying about himself as an artist, who is the ultimate revolutionary,” while Stuart Hall noted the hubris of the novel, writing that “it is a meditation by a middle-aged black revolutionary on a revolution he has ‘witnessed’ . . . but cannot, finally, share.”19
So what does Baldwin’s literary career tell us about book reviews? As an aspiring author, book reviews honed his writing style and propelled him into postwar literary and cultural discussions, particularly concerning debates about the limitations of social realist literature. Reading Baldwin’s early reviews, it’s clear that he was developing a literary and political aesthetic that he began to master by the time he published “Everybody’s Protest Novel” in 1949. When Baldwin, for example, complains in an early review that “human beings are too complex to be reduced to symbols and types,” we can see how this foreshadows his argument in “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” that the dangers are in “overlooking, denying, evading . . . complexity.”20 As I have tried to show through a brief reading of his critical reception, reviews of Baldwin’s novels are useful indicators of prevailing sexual and racial attitudes. In Baldwin’s case in particular, the sheer volume of criticism leveled at his fiction—and in particular his last four works—has cemented his reputation as an inimitable essayist but ailing novelist, something that recent scholarship has attempted to address but has failed to dislodge.
For contemporary reviewers, it is hard to gauge the impact of writing reviews. With so many forums to choose from, including blogs, websites, literary magazines, and academic journals, it’s hard to see how reviews remain the vital force that they were in the thirties and fourties when fierce debates about realism and role of politics circulated amongst journals such as Partisan Review and Commentary.21 Or maybe we have a nostalgic, romantic view of a halcyon day of book reviewing that never existed. Perhaps, as in George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Confessions of a Book Reviewer,” the job “not only involves praising trash—though it does involve that . . . but constantly INVENTING reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feelings whatever.”22
I want to consider the function of academic book reviews, drawing on my experience as a reviewer and as head book review editor of Callaloo. For graduate students and early career academics, book reviews are a useful and achievable way of getting that elusive first publication. Book review editors are usually pleased to hear from specialists in the field and it’s a platform for reviewers to demonstrate their understanding of the field, while also receiving a free book. Writing a book review focuses your reading; it forces you (or at least should force you) to pay close attention to the style, structure and content of the book under review. Most book review editors do not welcome unsolicited reviews; it’s good advice to contact the book review editor and to familiarize yourself with recent book reviews. (See Wendy Belcher’s informative article “Writing the Academic Book Review” for excellent advice on the process and advantages of academic book reviewing.)
While it’s important to familiarize yourself with a journal’s style, there are some key general features of academic book review. If there’s a golden rule, it’s to avoid reviewing books by people that you know. Academic circles are small and it’ll be obvious if you’ve reviewed a friend or colleague’s book. Similarly, it’s not wise to review a book of someone who’s likely to sit on your hiring committee; a good review will be embarrassing and a bad review will do you no favors. Ideally, a book review should be balanced, open minded, and well written. If there’s a pattern to poor academic book reviews, it’s usually one of several things. Early career scholars, like young mangoes, are overly keen to demonstrate their credentials and the tone can sound bitter; this can also be true of established academics reviewing a book they wish they’d written. Often academic reviews are unnecessarily theoretical; either the reviewer has no concern for the wider audience or they’re too caught up in a drive to demonstrate expertise in the field. Either way, these types of reviews are not pleasurable to read. Too many academic reviews forget the fundamentals of book reviews. Is the book worth reading? How does it contribute to the field in question? Is it well written? How is it structured? Will the reader get a clear sense of whether or not they want to read the book? If, as Orwell wrote in 1946, “the great majority of reviews give an inadequate or misleading account of the book that is dealt with,”23 then the challenge for contemporary reviewers is to avoid this at all costs. A good review should be a pleasure to read, whether or not one has an interest in the book under consideration, something we can learn by re-reading Baldwin’s early reviews. In an article about Cool World by Warren Miller, Baldwin praises the work with a set of values that book reviewers should aspire to achieve. Miller, Baldwin writes, “had felt it very deeply and was trying to tell the truth about it”; then Baldwin adds that he has no idea whether the author is black or white.24
Douglas Field is senior lecturer in English at Staffordshire University, United Kingdom. He is the editor of A Historical Guide to James Baldwin (2009) and is the author of the forthcoming book James Baldwin, for the series Writers and Their Work (Northcote House in association with the British Council). His work has appeared in African American Review, Callaloo, ELH, and the Times Literary Supplement (London), among other publications.
1 James Baldwin, “Introduction: The Price of the Ticket,” The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948–1985 (New York: St. Martin’s Marek, 1985), xiii.
2 James Baldwin, “Maxim Gorki as Artist,” The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings, ed. and with introduction by Randall Kenan (New York: Pantheon, 2010), 239; originally published in Nation, 12 April 1947.
3 Ibid., 240.
4 James Baldwin, “Smaller than Life,” Baldwin: Collected Essays, ed. Toni Morrison (New York: Library of America), 578; originally published in Nation, 19 July 1947.
5 James Baldwin, “History as Nightmare,” in Baldwin: Collected Essays, 579, 580; originally published in New Leader, 25 October 1947.
6 Mike Thelwell, “Another Country: Baldwin’s New York Novel,” in C. W. E. Bigsby, ed., The Black American Writer: Fiction, vol. 1 of The Black American Writer (Baltimore: Penguin, 1969), 182, 189, 188.
7 John Hall, “James Baldwin Interviewed,” in Fred L. Standley and Louis H. Pratt, eds., Conversations with James Baldwin (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1989), 104.
8 Augusta Strong, review of Another Country by James Baldwin, Freedomways 2, no. 4 (1962): 502.
9 Stanley Edgar Hyman, “No Country for Young Men,” New Leader, 25 June 1962, 22, 23. Hyman writes, “Since Giovanni’s Room was distinguished by the delicacy and taste of its erotic scenes, I can only conclude that Baldwin has changed his ways in order to achieve a best-seller” (23).
10 For some positive comments on Baldwin’s treatment of homosexuality, see Granville Hicks, “Tormented Triangle,” New York Times Book Review, 14 October 1956, 5; see also Nelson Algren, “Lost Man,” Nation, 1 December 1956, 434.
11 Charles Rolo, “Other Voices, Other Rooms,” Atlantic Monthly, December 1956, 98.
12 James Ivy, “The Faerie Queens,” Crisis 64 (1957): 123.
13 Eliot Fremont Smith, “Books of the Times: Another Track,” New York Times, 31 May 1968, 27.
14 David Llorens, “Books Noted,” Negro Digest (August 1968), 85; Isa Kapp, “In Perspective and Anger,” New Leader, 3 June 1968, 18–20.
15 Mario Puzo, “His Cardboard Lovers,” New York Times Book Review, 23 June 1968, 5; Guy Davenport, “If These Wings Should Fail Me, Lord,” National Review, 16 July 1968, 701.
16 Granville Hicks, “From Harlem with Hatred,” Saturday Review 51, no. 1 (1968): 23.
17 Nelson Algren, “Sashaying Around,” Critic (Oct-Nov, 1968): 86.
18 Irving Howe, “James Baldwin: At Ease in Apocalypse,” Harpers, September 1968, 95, 96, 100.
19 Puzo, “His Cardboard Lovers,” 5; Stuart Hall, “You Are a Fat Cow Now,” New Statesman (28 June, 1968): 871.
20 Baldwin, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” Collected Essays, 13; Baldwin, “History as Nightmare,” 11.
21 For a useful overview of the contemporary book review world (with a focus on commercial, not academic, books), see Peter Osnos, “Good Book Reviews Are No Longer Enough,” Atlantic, 19 April 2011, www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/04/good-book-reviews-are-no-longer-enough/237532/.
22 George Orwell, “Confessions of a Book Reviewer,” Tribune (London) 3 May 1946, www.george-orwell.org/Confessions_of_a_Book_Reviewer/0.html (emphasis in the original).
24 Baldwin, The Cross of Redemption, 273.