| A Writer Protests
Editor, The New York Review of Books
250 West 57th Street
New York, New York 10107
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"
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
Barbara Epstein, Feb. 2, 1991
Letter from Barbara Epstein, Feb. 8, 1991
Letter from Edward Field, Poets & Writers, Sept./Oct.
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
Letter from Gore Vidal:
[Letter not dated; envelope stamped 17.11.93]
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."
I believe the comments that follow are private opinions,
I've respected that privacy by not quoting further.--J.R.]
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
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