But What Do I Know?
An interview with New York Times writer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt
By David Mcnair

For 32 years, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt was a daily book reviewer for The New York Times, and he is now chief obituary writer for the paper. In this interview, Lehmann-Haupt comments on why he stopped reviewing books to write obituariesand how the two are similar. He discusses Oprah’s Book Club, tells us why the 1960’s and early 70’s were the most exciting period in American literature in the last four decades, and gives his take on 60’s drug culture and his brother Sandy’s involvement in Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters. He also gives us his list of the most influential books of the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt is the author of three books: Me and DiMaggio and two novels, A Crooked Man and The Mad Cook of Pymatuning, the latter to be published next year.

Gadfly: Why did you quit reviewing books? Was it that you wanted to try something different? Or were you disillusioned in your role as reviewer?

Lehmann-Haupt: Since my reviews still appear from time to time in various publications, I haven’t entirely quit reviewing books. But I gave up my regular position as daily book reviewer for The Times because, basically, I had run out of gas. That is, while I don’t believe the quality of my reviews declined, I was finding it harder and harder to sustain that quality, so when I was offered an opportunity to try something differentreviewing people instead of booksI accepted. So I guess I wanted to try something different. I was in no way disillusioned with my role as reviewer, although the range of interesting books had definitely narrowed over the years (because of the changes in the publishing industry) and the impact of book reviewers has probably diminished.

Are there similarities between writing obituaries and writing book reviews?

Yes, particularly with obits of writers: you read and pass judgment on the value of their work, although in much more subtle ways. With all obituaries, you sum up the "plot," indicate the high points, and assess the impact of the story (so to speak), if only by the length of the piece.

Have you ever written a "bad review" of someone’s life? If not, would you?

I haven’t written a "negative review" in so many words: "This was a bad life." But I have written a couple of obits of people I think are held in too high esteem, and I’ve tried to indicate in subtle ways where I believe they fell short of sainthood. I think, for example, I conveyed that Ken Kesey’s embrace of psychedelic drugs was not entirely beneficial to himself and his followers; certainly I said that he failed himself as a writer, and very likely it was because of drugs. Obits are rich in formal possibilities, and you can say a great deal between the lines.

What have been some of your most interesting obituaries to write? Have you written obituaries of friends? What is that like?

It was particularly interesting to write obits of the philosophers W. V. Quine and Robert Nozick because of the challenge to summarize their rather abstract ideas in relatively little space. Some of the other most interesting ones I’ve done haven’t appeared yet, so I hesitate to mention the subjects. I’ve done a couple of friends, the most memorable being Alice Trillin, the wife of the writer Calvin Trillin, who died coincidentally on the evening of 9/11. Writing about her the next day was an exercise in sublimating great grief, a needed distraction. Another interesting acquaintance was Peter McWilliams, the poet and computer-guide writer. William F. Buckley, Jr., a friend of Peter’s, called me to tell me he had died as a result of choking on his own vomit, a dramatic story that Buckley told in a column the next day since Peter had not only been forbidden by the law from taking marijuana to relieve his nausea from chemotherapy for cancer, but had also nearly gone to jail for growing and distributing pot for medical use. Buckley eagerly made use of this as confirmation of his position pro-drug-legalization. The Times told me that if that indeed was how he died they would go with it. But when I called the coroner’s office in L.A., I learned it wasn’t true at all; he had died of other causes.

In a recent NYT article by Martin Arnold ("The Fine Art of Publishing") he wrote that first-time literary novels are published in hardback "because so many book reviewers are snobbish about things literary and get nervous about reviewing even trade paperbacks, a format they tend not to take seriously." Is this true? In what other ways do publishers try to play into the hands of reviewers?

It’s true up to a point that reviewers are leery of reviewing paperback originals, because they tend to be aimed at a generic market that doesn’t need book reviews to be informed. Like nurse fiction, for instance. But over the years there were many extraordinary cases where, for one reason or another, I reviewed paperback originalslike the first issue of an anthology of new black writing called Amistador even paperback reprints of books published in hardcoverlike the movie edition of The Shining, by Stephen King, because I wanted to compare Kubrick’s film version with King’s original story. Another consideration was, or used to be, that only hardcover books were bought by libraries, and you wanted the books you reviewed to be available to library goers.

Are there other ways that publishers play into the hands of reviewers?

In the old days, when reviewers mattered more, when publication dates were firmer, and when The Timess daily reviewers Orville Prescott and Charles Poore reviewed on predictable days, publishers would set their pub dates according to who they wanted to review the book. That’s why John O’Hara was always published on Thanksgiving Day, so that Charles Poore, whose day was Thursday, would review him. I suppose you could add the parties and dinners given for authors to the ways that publishers tried to attract attention to particular books, but that too has died out as the sales of fewer and fewer books are reviewer driven.

Oprah Winfrey recently said she will stop picking books on a monthly basis for her book club. Obviously, this will have a profound effect on the publishing world, which has come to rely on her seal to sell books. In fact, it means, as a NYT editorial put it so emphatically, that "one of the greatest marketing tools ever devised will disappear." I’m curious about your thoughts on this phenomenon and its demise. Do you think Oprah’s Book Club was a good thing for American literature? Or do you think it was harmful to have the reading public’s attention so focused on the tastes of one woman? As the NYT editorial said in response to Ms. Winfrey’s statement that "it has become harder and harder to find books on a monthly basis that I feel absolutely compelled to share," her explanation reveals the problem with the power her book club has wielded. Even as it drew attention to a broader range of authors, it inevitably narrowed her public's focus to the books she recommended.

I wasn’t all that opposed to the Oprah phenomenon, because while her tastes were somewhat narrow and, one might say, un-subtle, her selections attracted people to books and perhaps slightly enlarged the readership of books as a whole. I admired her decision to stop rather than to loosen her standards, whatever they might be. After all, anyway you slice it, not that many memorable books are published in a given year. Try going back fifty years and counting the books that still really matter. What would be ideal would be if there were many Oprahspeople whose tastes the public trusts and admiresand they were varied enough to attract diverse audiences. In fact there once were many Oprahs, in the days when book clubs were still influential.

In a way, don’t you think the Oprah book club phenomenon was a word of mouth phenomenonyour best friend telling you about a great book she just read, only your best friend is Oprah Winfrey, and she’s telling 7 million people all at once about that great book?

Sure, it’s word of mouth, but that’s precisely what all book clubs are, the choices of people you trust. The Book of the Month Club got in trouble because their gurus weren’t any longer people readers knew and trusted. Oprah is effective because so many people know who she is, just as in the old days they were guided by the likes of Clifton Fadiman and Dorothy Canfield Fisher, two of the judges for the BOMC.

How aware were you over the years of your power and influence as a reviewer? Did it affect the way you wrote, knowing that your column, and therefore your pronouncement on a certain book, would be read by so many? In the long run, how much real power do you think book reviewers have over the lives of books and their authors?

Over the years, I really tried not to think about my power and influence, which was actually limited to certain kinds of books. My negative reviews of brand-name authors like Robert Ludlum or Jean Auel had practically no effect whatever on the sales of their books, just as a rave review by me of a work of abstruse philosophy had little effect, although more than a negative review of a household name. (A rave I wrote of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow sold a lot of copies the first couple of days after the review appeared, but then people discovered how difficult the novel was and sales fell off.) On the other hand I was responsible for launching The Closing of the American Mind, although I never tried to "sell" the book; I only expressed my fascination with the author’s argument. In fact, over the years I found that the less I thought about pushing or hurting a book and the more I tried simply to articulate clearly my complicated feelings about given works, the more effective I was and the more I seemed to influence sales. What I did try to accomplish was the art of selling a book in the sense of telling its story in a readable waythat is, make the review fun to read as a good story is fun to read. Bookstore people have told me that I grew good at this. It is an art to which reviewers often pay insufficient attention, I think.

Do you think reviewers have a responsibility to writers to first present a clear picture of their book before passing judgment? Or should reviewers remain responsible only to their instinctive reactions to a book? In general, who should reviewers be writing for?

As I hope I indicated in my answer to the previous question, I think a reviewer is obliged not only to present a clear picture of the book they’re judgingæthat is, the plot (short of giving the suspense of it away) or the thesis (in the case of nonfiction works)but also to convey what it is the book is trying to do on its own terms. What should be judged then is the extent to which the book succeeds or fails on its own terms, or the best terms possible for a particular form. A number of times, I found myself saying that a given writer was trying to write slick, superficial fiction and had succeeded very well at doing so, thus producing a slick, superficial book, whatever that might be worth. As for audience, I always found it hard to imagine the ten or twenty thousand readers who look at a Times daily book review (it seemed like trying to tailor a speech to a huge football stadium full of people) so I tended to go to the other extreme and write for just myself. The better I got at clarifying my feelings to myself and amusing myself in the process, the more responses I got from a wider and wider audience.

During your years as a reviewer, what was the most exciting period of time in American literature? And why?

The best time in the three decades I reviewed was probably the end of the 60’s and the beginning of the 70’s because there was so much going on: new experimental writing, writing by feminists, blacks, environmentalists, and so forth. And publishing was more diverse with respect not only to the kinds of books that were being published, but also to the style of publishing. That is, the houses were so different, ranging from Pantheon’s political radicalism to Grove’s cultural radicalism to risqué Olympia Press to stolid Harcourt Brace. Each house had a distinctive flavor, and there were as many flavors as Baskin Robbins had in its prime.

Fifty years from now, what writers and what books do you think will represent the 60’s and 70’s in America? How about the 80s and 90s?

We’re talking about four decades here, so a lot of books could be candidates, but what come immediately to mind from the 60’s and 70’s are Catch-22, by Joseph Heller, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, by Joan Didion, Herzog, by Saul Bellow, Rabbit, Run, by John Updike, The Armies of the Night, by Norman Mailer, Ragtime, by E. L. Doctorow, In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig, The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin, Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison, The Power Broker, by Robert Caro, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, by Tom Wolfe.

From the 80’s and 90’s: White Noise, by Don DeLillo, Path to Power and Means of Ascent, by Robert Caro, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, by Douglas Hofstadter, Pet Sematary, by Stephen King, The Ghost Writer, by Philip Roth, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, by Allan Bloom, The Bonfire of the Vanities, by Tom Wolfe, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, by Anne Tyler, American Pastoral, by Philip Roth, almost anything by Elmore Leonard.

What literary movements over the last 35 years do you think have stood the test of time? And why?

All experimental writing in the 20th century basically derives from James Joyce, but the mixture of fiction and nonfictionto good effect and badin books like Ragtime and In Cold Bloodwill probably endure in various forms.

Do you think the 60’s were a productive time for writers? Or did the desire for all that freedom and all those drugs undermine what could have been a productive period?

In a sense the 60’s were a productive time for writers, because the decade broke the freeze of the 1950’s, although the Beats, who were influentially productive, were really 50’s writers, like Kerouac and Ginsberg. But the best and most representative work was done by cold sober, disciplined craftspeople. I don’t think drugs helped anyone.

What do you think about the dominance of the memoir in recent years? How do you explain it? Is it simply a different way to package "fiction"? Is it a sign of our cultural thirst for confessions and full disclosure, for lives turned inside out before us—is this now what we demand from storytelling?

Sturgeon’s Law holds that 90 percent of everything is shit, and I suppose the law applies to the memoir just as it does to the novel. You could see the hunger for memoir coming as long ago as the 1960’sI even predicted it in a column I wrote in 1969 that stirred up a hornet’s nest among fiction writersand it can be a satisfying way to deal with some awful contemporary realities both for the writer and the reader. The novel rose to popularity in the 19th century because of readers’ curiosity about how other people lived and, I suppose, the memoir satisfies the same curiosity, except that instead of the furniture of rich houses being described, the furniture of rich minds and memories are inventoried in the memoir. At its worst it panders to the hunger for raw storytelling and confession that stimulates the audience for confessional TV. But at its best it can be as subtle and craftsman-like as good fiction.

How has the relationship between reviewer and author changed over the years? Do authors care as much about reviews as they once did? Hemingway taking the time to visit a reviewer and hit him with a book, Philip Roth taking the time to respond to your "On Imaging Jews" piece in 1974(a fantastic exchange by the way )is there that same tension today that there used to be, those same in-your- face disagreements?

As I’ve said several times in the foregoing, I don’t think reviews matter as much as they used to, if only because of the rise of other media. This decline went on throughout my tenure as a reviewer and also long before it, from a time when print reviews were almost the only way that audiences learned about books. And so authors probably care somewhat less, although I’ve noticed over the years that even the most successfully best-selling authors care about what reviewers say about them. Stephen King certainly cares, and there was a report just the other day of a highly commercial author at some publishing party practically assaulting a reviewer who had reviewed him negatively. It was literally an "in your face" disagreement. Still, the fact remains that there are fewer review media now, the job isn’t done as skillfully as it once was, and there are so many alternative ways of publicizing a book, so it’s easier for writers to shrug off reviewers.

You rose to prominence when journalists like you and Nat Hentoff were socially active. For instance, you and Hentoff both signed the letter on "Violence in Oakland" in 1968. Do think journalists today have become less socially and politically active? If so, why is that? What influence, if any, did your brother Sandy have on your political and social involvement during the ‘60s?

As a social activist, I can’t be put in the same category as Nat Hentoff, let alone the same sentence; everyone signed something in the 1960’s, and my support of the Black Panthers against the Oakland police was spasmodic and soon disillusioned. My brother Sandy’s experience both with the Merry Pranksters and with life in general drove me in the opposite direction, away from social activism and toward tending my own garden, so to speak. My doing so had to do with dynamics of my family far too complicated to go into properly here. In any case, The Times has always discouraged its reporters and reviewers from becoming socially engaged: we aren’t supposed to sit on boards and prize committees, support political candidates, or sign petitions. (I was on the staff of the Sunday Book Review when I signed most of the letters I did in the 1960’s.) As for social activism among journalists: I don’t know about reporters in general but The Times as a whole has certainly become more engaged, if only by their determined policy of diversifying their staff.

What do you think about Charles Frazier getting an $8 million advance for a one-page book proposal?

First, it reminds me of when, as a young editor, I couldn’t convince my boss to pay a $10,000 advance for a half-page proposal for a book to be titled Is Paris Burning? by Larry Collins and Dominique LaPierre, which ultimately ended up earning what must have been close to $8 million in 1963 dollars. Things have certainly changed. Of course you could argue that Frazier getting such an advance reflects everything that’s wrong these days not only with publishing but also with American culture, where the rich get richer and the poor poorer. But the brighter side is that it encourages people to dream, and that’s what this country is mainly about, isn’t it?

I can’t believe it will work out well for the publisher, because Cold Mountains success depended on such a complex convergence of currents in the cultural gulf-stream. But then a brand-name writer is a brand-name writer and the fact of Frazier’s getting such an advance will contribute to the success of the book, no matter what or how it turns out. It might not be a bad strategy to pay random writers that much from time to time, and see if they become best-sellers on that basis alone. Nothing exceeds like excess. In fact, that’s exactly what publishers already do to catch and mount brand-name authors on their boardroom walls. I hadn’t realized that Frazier had become that big a name on the basis of Cold Mountain. But what do I know?