Larry Heinemann, the author of “Paco’s Story” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), a widely and warmly reviewed novel about the homecoming of a Vietnamese War veteran, has lately won a kind of victory over the New York Times, but only, it is painful to say, because the New York Times seems to have been spoiling for a fight with him.
The New York Times did not review “Paco’s Story” when it was published late in 1986. That newspaper’s first attention to the novel came on Nov. 8, 1987, the day before Heinemann, a Chicago novelist, won the National Book Award for fiction.
There need have been no serious embarrassment about this oversight or mistake (whichever it may have been). When 50,000 new books are published each year, the largest and most astute staff of book review editors will overlook a book now and again, or misconstrue it and have to double back later. The Los Angeles Times did not review the NBA nonfiction winner, Richard Rhodes’ well-written “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” (Simon & Schuster). Perhaps we should catch up with that book now. Like the New York Times review of “Paco’s Story,” a perceptive, laudatory piece by Christopher Benfey, our review of “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” would presumably be no less welcome for being late.
Unfortunately, Benfey’s review was not the New York Times’ last word about “Paco’s Story.” On Nov. 16, more than a week after that review, the daily New York Times published an article as misleading as it was ungracious, faulting the NBA for giving its prize to Heinemann. “Members of the literary community,” Michiko Kakutani began in “How ‘Paco’s Story’ Won (And Why Others Lost),” “had widely regarded Toni Morrison’s novel ‘Beloved’ as a virtual shoo-in. . . .”
Which members? Kakutani does not say.
On what basis? Surely not on the basis of reviews: All the five finalists were enthusiastically reviewed. Was there a leak from the trio of judges? None that Kakutani reports. Then why did the (unidentified) members of the literary community regard Morrison, the only New Yorker among the finalists, as such a shoo-in? The competition, after all, was pretty stiff.
As for why the judges disagreed with the “literary community,” Kakutani speaks of “fruitless efforts to dissect the three-member jury’s decision-making process (did they split their vote, make a compromise decision, etc.?).” But why were any such efforts called for? In the New York Times itself, the judges had already been quoted as saying that, yes, their vote had been split 2-1 but, no, there had been no compromise candidate. And if one jury was to be dissected, why not both?
But having drummed herself up a mystery, Kakutani must set about solving it. She offers three possible solutions, the first two at considerable speculative length, the third in a single laconic sentence: 1. The jury wanted to give the fiction prize to an unknown to help him out. 2. The jury was caught up in the trendiness of Vietnam as a topic. 3. The jury thought “Paco’s Story” was the best book.
There is not a scrap of evidence for 1 or 2. To refute 3, an explanation that should be presumed correct in the absence of strong evidence to the contrary, Kakutani offers only her own hasty review of “Paco’s Story.” No surprise: She doesn’t like it. No surprise either: She finds Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” “a work of mature imagination--a magisterial and deeply moving meditation not only on the cruelties of a single institution, but on family, history and love.”
She concludes: “It’s unfair perhaps to compare a young author’s second novel with one written by a highly experienced novelist, but then that’s exactly what the judges on the fiction panel for the National Book Award did.” Well, no they didn’t: The judges on the panel compared three novels by relative beginners with one novel by a true veteran, Philip Roth, and one by a novelist, Toni Morrison, who is somewhere in between. Larry Heinemann is no kid; he is in his 40s. Toni Morrison--whom the judges, by the way, have not identified as the runner-up--is only in her 50s. True, Heinemann has only two novels in print. But then Morrison has only five. There is a clear difference between them, but Kakutani grossly exaggerates it when she speaks of Heinemann as if he were a well-meaning English major and of Morrison as if she were Eudora Welty.
Please make no mistake. I admire “Beloved” enormously. Our review of it--written, with lyric praise, by John Leonard (The Book Review, Aug. 30, 1987)--was one of the first to appear. Later, Elizabeth Mehren wrote a long, equally admiring feature story on Morrison for View. But admiration of “Beloved” is beside the point. One may also admire Alice McDermott’s heart-stopping “That Night,” Howard Norman’s deeply original “The Northern Lights,” or “The Counterlife,” perhaps the culminating masterpiece of Philip Roth’s long-running literary career.
The point is simply that Larry Heinemann richly deserved the prize that he won. Readers who may be inclined to discount this view on the grounds that Richard Eder, one of the NBA judges, reviewed “Paco’s Story” favorably in The Book Review, Dec. 7, 1986, are invited to read Veronica Geng in The New Yorker, May 11, 1987. Geng is not just untrendy, she is --in her brief satirical pieces for that magazine--the very scourge of trendiness. And yet she found Heinemann’s novel both moving and important. Reviewers for the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune and a dozen other papers agreed. “Paco’s Story” was no fluke. It was, quite literally, a coast-to-coast success.
It is pure accident that Larry Heinemann has written the lead review in today’s Book Review. We had sent him William Wharton’s “Tidings” to review before he was nominated for the National Book Award. He has written for The Book Review before. We hope he will write for us again.
But Kakutani’s article is regrettable for more than its ill-considered condescension toward a writer whom we happen to like. As all book editors know, it can be difficult to persuade novelists to review the work of other novelists. No response to a review invitation is commoner than “I’m afraid I won’t like it.” Why afraid? Well, according to the dark myth, the book world carries grudges. More than the average reader would guess, writers fear those grudges. They fear that their honest opinion may cost them dearly, months or even years later, when an expected review never appears or when it appears in the form of a polite reprisal .
These fears are grossly exaggerated, I believe, but Kakutani’s piece will give them a new lease on life. For the undeniable fact is that while a critic like Richard Eder cannot be harmed by the implicit disapprobation of the New York Times, novelists like his fellow judges Hilma Wolitzer and Gloria Naylor can be. The next time you find yourself asking why so many novels are reviewed by English professors, so few by other novelists, remember Michiko Kakutani.
Kakutani ends her piece quoting E. L. Doctorow: “I have ambivalent feelings about awards because literature is not a horse race.” Would that she had thought more deeply about those words before writing her article, for indeed what counts most about prizes like the National Book Award is not the ultimate winner but the group of distinguished finalists. That this was a year in which five brilliant novels were published in America, three of them by younger writers, is cause for rejoicing. That an influential reviewer should be indignant, days after the ceremony, because her personal favorite did not win is cause only for a sigh.