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A Writer Protests

May 28, 1996

Ms. Barbara Epstein
Editor, The New York Review of Books
250 West 57th Street
New York, New York 10107

Ms. Epstein:

When, back in February of 1991, I first became aware that in Selections, a collection of past reviews from your journal, you had exhumed Alfred Chester's piece of malice posing as a review of my first novel, City of Night, I wrote you expressing my disgust not only at the content of the piece but at the inclusion of the inflammatory title you originally donated to it --"Fruit Salad"-- a title you were now bringing forth into the present with renewed insult to a whole minority. In my letter to you (copy enclosed), I pointed out that not even in the dark ages of 1963 would you have used equivalently derogatory words for black people, Jews, women, derogatory words, Ms. Epstein, as prevalent among bigots as the word "fruit" is.

In your answer to me (copy enclosed), you wrote: "You are right about the title `Fruit Salad.' . . . I see that when we reprinted the Alfred Chester piece, we should have removed the title. I'm sorry." You received several letters protesting the use of the offensive word--copies were sent to me--including several from gay and lesbian anti-defamation groups. You published not one of those, Ms. Epstein, just as you had printed none of the letters of objection that followed the first appearance of Chester's diatribe.

A few weeks ago, I responded to your subscription offer in the New York Times Book Review, and did so only to see whether in the new edition of your Selections, offered to prospective subscribers, you had honored your apology to me, and to the minority the title of the your "review" maligned so recklessly.

You had not.

There it all is again in a new printing with a fresh cover, the vicious "review" full of personal insults that have nothing to do with legitimate criticism and that you allowed: a questioning of my very existence (has anyone ever questioned your existence, Ms. Epstein?), leering flirtatious remarks about my photograph (has anyone ever commented coyly on your photograph, Ms. Epstein, while pretending to evaluate your journal?). There, too, in the new edition of your Selections, is the inflammatory title tha t-- unbelievably, in 1996, and especially after your apology -- updates your imprimatur on the noxious word that gay-bashers shout during cowardly attacks, a word, Ms. Epstein--surely you agree--out of place in a journal that vaunts its intellectual authenticity. I cannot imagine any other reputable journal that would use that word today.

As a woman who has surely had to battle--and has overcome--prejudices based on gender, and as a member yourself of a maligned minority, aren't you shamed by that title, Ms. Epstein? Doesn't that word "fruit" jar your intellectual sense of fairness? Is that sense of "fairness" selective? The current issue of your journal does, after all, feature Louis Menand's excellent and relevant "The Anti-Semitism of T.S. Eliot." Wouldn't you admit, Ms. Epstein, that one minority attacking another provides a sorry spectacle? That is a subject I have written about extensively, emphasizing that the same hungry evil that pursues one minority pursues all the others, and women.

At every opportunity, I have addressed the matter of your journal's extended attack on my first novel, as well as, Ms. Epstein, your denigration, in the title of the "review," of a whole minority. I have done so in the "Introduction" that now precedes all editions of my first novel, including translations; in all entries on me in reference books when I am quoted; and in interviews with me, notably in Poets & Writers (May/June, 1992) and in the Cornell University Journal Diacritics (Spring, 1995). And I address the matter fully in an article I am now completing about all this.

In reaction to my discussion in Poets & Writers, Edward Field, Chester's own editor, Ms. Epstein, wrote to the magazine (printed letter enclosed): "It was with a good deal of sadness that I read in the John Rechy interview . . . of the damage done to City of Night by the late Alfred Chester's bitchy review of it in the New York Review of Books. . . . It was a considerable understatement to call Chester `notoriously disturbed.' . . . He was mad . . . cruel and destructive, as his review demonstrates. . . . " Mr. Field goes on to refer to your own telling contribution to this attack, Ms. Epstein: "In explaining and apologizing for [Chester's] disservice to Rechy, an author I greatly admire, I should point out that the title of the offending review, 'Fruit Salad,' was not Alfred Chester's but the New York Review of Books's, which has long demonstrated homophobia in its essays and cartoons." Critic David Ehrenstein, too, in an article in The Advocate (copy enclosed), notes Chester's obviously personal "bitchy dismissal." (An anti-homosexual bias in your journal, Ms. Epstein, has been detected by several prominent critics, including Richard Hall.)

More recently, Gore Vidal, in the preface to his United States: Essays 1954-1994, labeled Chester's "review" "totally unfair;" and yet, bewilderingly, Ms. Epstein, he went on to describe its "murderously funny" approach as a "trick that only a high critic knows how to pull off." I wrote Mr. Vidal (copy of my letter enclosed) protesting his implicit praise of such mistreatment, especially since throughout the years he has been the object of similar "murderously funny" abuse. I asked him, Ms. Epstein, whether not even your offensive title had made him wince. He answered: "I very much admire City of Night. . . . Also, as you must suspect, I admire a kind of performance in criticism which is often plainly gratuitously destructive. . . . Chester, a moral monster, one gathers, was, for a time, a master of this sort of thing . . . and I had forgotten about him entirely until I reread his `totally unfair' piece and I'm afraid I succumbed yet again to his black arts. . . ." He graciously points out that "the finest 20th century critic of Anglo-American literature, Mario Praz, "lectured" him "for an hour" in praise of my novel. In his letter to me, Mr. Vidal goes on to conjecture about the motives behind the title given to Chester's "review" in your journal, Ms. Epstein; but because I respect the privacy of his remarks, I will not quote those, nor shall I enclose a copy of his letter.

Significantly, your recent subscriber-solicitation in the New York Times Book Review offered the new printing of your Selections with the enticement that readers might want to know what your reviewers first wrote about books by William Burroughs and James Baldwin, books now considered "modern classics." Ms. Epstein, you left out a reference to City of Night. It, too, is considered a modern classic.

Like several others of my novels, City of Night has never been out of print. There are at present at least six different American editions of it. It was just reissued by Gallimard in France, to high praise, including in Le Monde (excerpt of review enclosed). New translations and foreign editions of my first novel appear virtually every year. It is required reading in university courses throughout the country. The original manuscript of it, and its highly revised galley proofs, are in the permanent archives of Boston University Library, along with all my other manuscripts, my letters, etc. City of Night and my other books are discussed in dozens of prominent volumes on literature: The Oxford Companion to American Literature, The Columbia History of the American Novel, Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia, Merriam Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature, A Reader's Guide to Twentieth Century Writers, among many others. Not a single one of those volumes, Ms. Epstein, makes reference to Alfred Chester.

I cannot, Ms. Epstein, deny the impact that the monstrous Chester "review" had on my reputation as a writer, an assault I have had to struggle to overcome, so powerful was its influence, an impact made possible only because his rantings were allowed in the journal that arrogated intellectual importance from its inception. By assigning my novel to him, Ms. Epstein, you guaranteed the offensive attack. Together, Chester and your journal set a strident tone for others of that ilk to follow. Reviews in the Village Voice and the New Republic, articles in scandal magazines and tabloids (their tone so meaningfully much like Chester's), items in gossip columns--all quoted his "review" in your journal and extended his spurious questioning of my existence. (How it must have galled Chester--and those who allowed his poisonous performance--to see my novel top bestseller lists for over half a year.)

When you first read his "review," Ms. Epstein, wasn't it clear to you--isn't it now clear?--that Chester was attempting literary murder and that his intention was motivated by his sexual frustrations, his terrible envies? Is it possible that you didn't realize all that--and that, if you did, you approved it, Ms. Epstein? (You did, after all, assure that his would be the first review to appear, and you did so by jumping the publication date of my novel.) "[I]t was himself [Chester] was savagely attacking in the review," Edward Field points out in the quoted letter of apology, "and it was the same rage turned on himself that ultimately destroyed him." Poet Frank O'Hara in Kulchur noted that my novel unnerved Chester to the point of reducing him to the "Oh, Mary!" level.

By doggedly digging up Chester's rancid "review," and by flaunting the offensive title you gave it, you exhibit, Ms. Epstein, a very curious foot-stamping insistence to be right about a novel that has proven you and Chester wrong.

Ms. Epstein, when the "review" first appeared, I was young, bewildered by the vindictiveness of the allowed assault, and I did not protest; but I'm no longer young, I understand the attack, and I do protest emphatically. After thirty-three years of this, how about equal time, Ms. Epstein? Allow me space in your journal for the essay I'm now completing on the matter--on the eve of the publication of my eleventh novel, Our Lady of Babylon, the latest in a body of work I'm proud of. My essay discusses the experience of being pursued literally beyond the grave by the "review" of an acknowledged "monster." I explore wider implications about the function of criticism, the point at which it becomes interference. I cite examples of other writers who have been guaranteed negative reviews to reflect the prejudices of the journal in which the reviews will appear. I cite Elizabeth Hardwick on Christopher Isherwood, Philip Roth on Edward Albee. I promise you, Ms. Epstein, my essay is quite fascinating, with quotations from references included in this letter.

At the very least, how about printing this letter?

For permitting overtly personal and destructive spite into the pages of your journal and for stubbornly perpetuating it for decades, Ms. Epstein, you owe me that much.

Sincerely,

Enclosures: Copies of:

Letter to Barbara Epstein, Feb. 2, 1991
Letter from Barbara Epstein, Feb. 8, 1991
Letter from Edward Field, Poets & Writers, Sept./Oct. 1992
Essay by David Ehrenstein, The Advocate, 1994
Letter to Gore Vidal, Nov. 6, 1993
Excerpts from letter from Gore Vidal, Nov. 17, 1993
Excerpt from review of City of Night by Hugo Marsan, Le Monde, July, 1993

Copies to: Relevant persons

Excerpts from Letter from Gore Vidal:
[Letter not dated; envelope stamped 17.11.93]

"Dear Rechy,

"As you know I very much admire City of Night, particularly the hustler love scene. Also, as you must suspect, I admire a kind of performance in criticism which is often plainly gratuitously destructive. . . . Chester, a moral monster one gathers, was, for a time, a master of this sort of thing . . . and I had forgotten about him entirely until I reread his `totally unfair' etc. piece and I'm afraid I succumbed yet again to his black arts."

[Because I believe the comments that follow are private opinions, I've respected that privacy by not quoting further.--J.R.]

"Best,

[signed] Gore Vidal"

[A "P.S." goes on to convey praise ("from beyond the grave") of City of Night from Critic Mario Praz.--J.R.]

Excerpt from translation of review of City of Night
by Hugo Marsan, Le Monde, July, 1993:

". . . thirty years later . . . the novel has not aged a bit . . . one reads [it] eagerly. . . . [W]e understand better its exceptional authenticity, its premonitory vision, its subtle literary innovations. The characters . . . have the tragic complexity of Vautrin, Charlus, or Morel, and the aggressive solitude of the marginal people of Jean Genet. . . . [I]ts poetry is not ostentatious nor imposed. . . . [The] protagonists are individuals of flesh and blood."

John Rechy

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