| A Writer
Editor, The New York Review of Books
250 West 57th Street
New York, New York 10107
Dear Ms. Epstein,
your extending me space in your "Letters" Column
to answer, finally, Alfred Chester's "review"
of City of Night. My letter is enclosed.
your space-limitations, and I reworked my letter over
and over, from 1700+ words to its present 668. It's impossible
for me to cut any more and still make my point. I'm sure
you won't consider me arbitrary in asking that my letter
appear only as written. I hope you'll allow me the few
extra lines to have my full say.
for your courtesy. I'll look forward to hearing from you.
June 17, 1996
To the Editors,
The New York Review of Books:
In May 1963,
there appeared in your journal a piece of malice posing
as a review of my first novel, City of Night. The
"review" was written by Alfred Chester. You
titled it "Fruit Salad." I was young, baffled
by the personal assault, and I did not protest. I'm no
longer young, I understand the attack, and I protest the
abuse and its recent extension.
my very existence, a twist of meanness seized by others
of his ilk in The New Republic, The Village
Voice, and in tabloids. Consequently, impostors emerged,
their behavior attributed to me in gossip columns. (I
had chosen to retain my privacy.) The impact of Chester's
"review" was possible because it appeared in
Night became an international bestseller, has never
been out of print, is taught in literature courses.
"review" would have become at most a ridiculed
footnote if you had not dug it up in 1988 in your collection
of reviews, Selections. Again you exposed Chester's
leering at my photograph, his giddy tone ("Oooo,
Mary"), his attempted disparagement even of my name.
The doubting of my existence was more offensive when I
had gone on to write many more books. The original headline
updated your imprimatur on the word "fruit."
my objection: ". . . we should have removed the title.
In May this
year you offered a copy of Selections, with a
new cover, inviting subscribers to learn what your reviewers
wrote about Burroughs's and Baldwin's books considered
"modern classics." Since City of Night
is also referred to as a "modern classic," I
assumed Chester's "review" was omitted. It was
intact. A letter from you answering mine maintained that
the edition was--"apparently"--not a new printing.
Still, Chester's performance was extended.
to an interview with me in Poets & Writers,
Edward Field, Chester's once-editor, wrote to the magazine:
"It was with a good deal of sadness that I read .
. . of the damage done to City of Night by the
late Alfred Chester's bitchy review. . . . It was a considerable
understatement to call Chester `notoriously disturbed.'
. . . He was mad . . . cruel and destructive, as his review
demonstrates. . . . 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
. . . was not Alfred Chester's but the New York Review
of Books's. . . ."
In his United States: Essays 1954-1994, Gore Vidal,
discussing Selections, labels Chester's "review"
"absolutely unfair," yet "murderously funny
. . . a trick that only a high critic knows how to pull
off"--a trick Mr. Vidal goes on to claim he, too,
can perform. I reminded Mr. Vidal that he has been the
object of "murderously funny" criticism. I asked
him whether not even the title of the "review"
had made him wince. He wrote back: "I very much admire
City of Night. . . . Also . . . I admire a kind
of performance in criticism which is often plainly gratuitously
destructive but at the same time a sort of art. . . .
Chester, a moral monster, one gathers, was, for a time,
a master of this sort of thing. . . . 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. . . . I don't even recall the offensive title."
Mr. Vidal's approval of Chester's malice--not art--remains
in his volume.
you exhume Chester's spite on a novel that has proven
him wrong, you condone his dishonorable motives, motives
Chester makes clear in his "review":
the hustler in my novel as "the kind of person we
now speak of as `someone incapable of love'" Chester
continues: "And, as with all these people, if you
are hot for them enough, or bedeviled and tormented by
them enough, and if you look and examine very hard, you
will find that it is not at all true that they cannot
love. They can; they do; alas, they love too much, which
is the problem, for they are always loving someone else."
But never Chester.
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