Thursday, January 1, 2015

Booked: Reflections on Jonathan Yardley's Retirement

Over three decades, Jonathan Yardley has written over 3,000 book reviews for The Washington Post. He retired in December. (Photo by Linda Davidson)

I don’t know what ongoing changes in technology and the media landscape are going to do to the state of publishing in this country, but I do feel that I lucked out in growing up at a time when it was possible for a kid with limited resources, far from the center of action, to have a favorite book reviewer. I’m not talking about critics, those people who write big books and give names to decades and generations, but regular, working reviewers, the ones who, instead of being able to pick their subjects, have to be prepared to take on anyone in the room. I’m paraphrasing Wilfrid Sheed, who proudly claimed the designation “reviewer” for himself, but he was (slightly) giving himself anti-airs. Sheed wrote a whole slew of the smartest, funniest, most perceptive book reviews of his time, but he doesn’t quite fit into the mold of regular reviewer, if only because, thanks in part to the publishing-world allure of his family name, most of his output was, thankfully, collected between hard covers when he was still alive to bitch about the royalties.

As often as I pull my copies of Sheed's The Morning After and The Good Word and Other Words off the shelves when I need a pick-me-up, my real early book review hero was Walter Clemons, whose nonfiction writing never made it between boards. Clemons wrote for Newsweek from 1971 to 1983; quit to figure heavily in the creation of the infamous first issue of the new Vanity Fair in 1983, after which he went crawling back to Newsweek and hung in there for another five years. (Before hiring on at Newsweek, he had been a star reviewer at the New York Times, and was widely expected to be bumped up to daily critic. When the job went to Anatole Broyard instead, Clemons was so affronted by the suggestion that Broyard was a better choice for the job that he quit the Times in disgust. In his book The Gay Metropolis, Charles Kaiser reports that Clemons’ promotion was sabotaged by his colleague, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, who outed him to the newspaper’s infamously homophobic executive editor, A. M. Rosenthal. Lehmann-Haupt reportedly explained that he was trying to do Clemons a favor; he was concerned that, under the “pressure” of the job, he might slip and reveal his terrible secret to his readers by writing all gay. Lehmann-Haupt’s reaction the news that Anatole Broyard, who died in 1990, was an African American who “passed” for white during his entire career at the Times has not been recorded.)

Walter Clemons (1930-1964)
Clemons’ hundreds of reviews for Newsweek have an assurance and a mixture of common sense and suavity that was dazzling for a semi-literate young thug who was curious about all those books at the public library but had no idea which ones to take a chance on, but none of that work has been collected in book form. Nor would a reader guess at Clemons’ stature as a reviewer from his most high-profile writing for the magazine, his cover stories on such phenomena as the young Joyce Carol Oates, Saul Bellow’s Nobel Prize win, or John Cheever’s surprise hit novel Falconer. Compared to the wit and dash of his weekly reviews on whatever came across his desk, these longer pieces on culturally accredited subjects show an unbecoming earnestness, a determination to offer the accepted high-end mainstream take on this officially recognized Big Deal. It would make perfect sense to learn that they’d been ghost-written by an eager young Michiko Kakutani. Clemons must have viewed having to do this kind of solemn rock-breaking as a fair trade for having a regular perch at one of the two biggest newsweeklies in America.

Now, of course, newsweeklies don’t have anything like the clout they had in the years before the twenty-four-hour cable-and-Internet news cycle, and none of the ones that survive really has a book section anymore. The Internet has been a windfall for book criticism in some ways, thanks not just to the decidedly mixed blessing of Amazon book “reviews” but such book-crazy sites as The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, Full Stop, The New Inquiry, and others. But these are specialist sites for the already obsessed; it meant something different for Newsweek or Time to reserve four to six pages every week for books, treating them as if average readers ought to expect to see them treated as equal in importance to movies, music, TV, and celebrity gossip as part of the culture. If Clemons’s death felt like the start of the end of an era, the retirement of Jonathan Yardley, chief book reviewer of The Washington Post since 1981—during a time when the Post’s book section had no rival among major metropolitan dailies—slams the iron gate shut.

In his farewell column for the Post, Yardley wrote that he approached the books he reviewed as a reporter, and in fact, he’s said that he got into book reviewing in the 1960s because he was offered the editorship of the book-review page at the newspaper where he was then working, and said yes “because it meant free books.” The man who sees free books as a terrific job perk is probably a man who ought to be reviewing books, but the death of the book review section at magazines and newspapers not specifically geared to coverage of books is probably killing off this particular route to the golden valley. Unlike Kakutani, who seems boringly bred to pore over the new books of each season and rank them in order of Importance and award-worthiness, Yardley brought an “amateur” reader’s enthusiasm to his job, with a bracing indifference to literary fashion and the respect automatically accorded to such worthy big names as Toni Morrison and Norman Mailer and an appreciation of solid story-telling values and fresh and energetic language.

Yardley sometimes acted the curmudgeon when teeing off against writers he considered overrated, and in his last ten years at the Post, he was open about considering pretty much every well-known American fiction writer under fifty to be overrated. He was open to the possibility that age had something to do with that, but he also made the case that the creative-writing mills were turning out career literary craftsmen schooled in a brand of youthful solipsism that wasn’t his bag. And for a self-styled old fart, he could still direct readers to undernoticed but richly entertaining novels, such as Seth Greenland’s Shining City and The Bones. He could also surprise you with his insights into better-known pop novelists; it’s not a major feat to direct readers to Michael Connelly or Dennis Lehane, but for one of his last tricks, Yardley finally caught up with John Grisham and delivered a convincing thumbs-up.

Most of Yardley’s reviews over the course of his long career remained entombed in yellowing newsprint that predates the online era, but he got a few things between covers, including his biographies of that literary entertainer from a bygone era, Ring Lardner, and Frederick “A Fan’s Notes” Exley, a quintessential self-destructive literary weirdo who Yardley admired for having managed, for the duration of a single book (out of the three Exley published), to get it right. (Yardley appreciates hard, serious work and devotion to craft. His animus against Mailer is rooted in his sense that Mailer let his publicity stunts get in the way of business—that, as he put it in one of his early pieces for the Post, Mailer just spent too much time “being Mailer.”)

The simplest, best way to get a taste of Yardley’s brand of book criticism at full strength is to dip into Second Reading, a collection of his Post columns devoted to revisiting books remembered—in some, but not all cases, fondly—and savoring his appreciations of authors who have fallen out of fashion (John P. Marquand) or out of collective memory (the popular historian Margaret Leech) alongside immortals ranging from Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the Hunter S. Thompson of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The book also contains his evisceration of Catcher in the Rye and its author’s “cheap sentimentality” and “easy exploitation of the reader’s emotion.” Trying to account for that novel’s enduring popularity, Yardley recently told a TV interviewer that the damned thing is sincere: “Salinger meant it. It’s from the heart. It’s from a not particularly interesting heart, in my considered opinion.” Youthful solipsism can always attract an audience, but the right cutting phrase will always clear the air. And send the phonies scattering.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He has contributed to The A.V. ClubHitFlixNerveHiLobrow, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, among other publications.

1 comment:

  1. Lovely essay. Pointed me in some new directions. Thank you.