Garry Wills and William Pfaff go at it



Garry Wills
  • Courtesy of Charlie Rose
  • Garry Wills
British essayist Clive James ruefully observed in Sunday's New York Times that America's only serious cultural deficiency is its lack of "hostile literary criticism." By way of example of what there's not nearly enough of, he offered his own 1977 review in the New York Review of Books of John Le Carré's The Honorable Schoolboy. It was "undoubtedly a hatchet job," James allowed, though not written to harm Le Carré, merely to have "fun" by picking out the book's "absurdities and pomposities." Le Carré was not amused, James allowed: Le Carré "had never had a really bad review in his life until I ambushed him in America." But of course both were British—the NYRB just happened to be the corral where he slapped leather.

The Honorable Schoolboy was the middle installment of Le Carré's "Karla trilogy." The first and last of those three books—Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley's People—were adapted to television to great acclaim by the BBC, with Alec Guinness as George Smiley. Schoolboy wasn't. It was some 160 pages longer than either of its companions, a heftiness James's hatchet job took note of. "Generally the book has been covered with praise—a response not entirely to be despised, since The Honourable Schoolboy is so big that it takes real effort to cover it with anything," he wrote. "At one stage I tried to cover it with a pillow, but there it was, still half visible, insisting, against all the odds posed by its coagulated style, on being read to the last sentence."

Your opinion's at least as good as mine as to how right James is about the American literati. My impression is that our writers work harder to appear than to actually be seemly, keeping their blades whetted but out of sight. Compare James's hatchet job with the haircut John Updike gave a later Le Carré novel, Our Game, in 1995 in the New Yorker. Updike's fundamentally out of sympathy with Le Carré (I thought at the time he was clueless about the writer's merits), but he's pleasant enough. "Le Carré's prose has an overheated expertise about it," Updike writes, "as if it wished to be doing something other than spinning a thriller."

The hatchet is an versatile instrument of destruction. Our writers don't swing it like an ax in hopes of felling the big timber; instead, they whittle away at the bark as you might with a trail knife, leaving behind a girdled oak doomed to keel over just as dead. My view of the NYRB's stable of critics—Americans, many of them—is that they're masters of this death by a thousand nicks. Should they persuade readers to go out and buy and read the book they're discussing, then they've failed. Should they persuade readers to regret with all their hearts that the book under discussion hadn't been written by the critic instead, then they've triumphed.

Alternatively, they might leave readers to wonder why anyone bothered to write such a book at all.

The other day I spotted a troubling sight in the pages of the New York Review of Books: one of my favorite writers was reviewing another of my favorite writers. I feared mayhem.

William Pfaff
  • William Pfaff
Northwestern's own Garry Wills is good for about one erudite book on a recondite subject per year. I'd just read Rome and Rhetoric, his brilliant parsing of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, and here he was again with Why Priests?: A Failed Tradition, another of his periodic attempts to imagine a Catholic Church worthy of his loyalty to it. And here to review Why Priests? was William Pfaff, also a Catholic, a student of international affairs whom I'd described years ago, after meeting him in Paris, as a "gracefully meditative writer with a keen sense of the importance of moral authority in history." (Someone wrote the Reader in response and snickered, "whatever that means." It means that globally, as well as at home and at the office, the tough calls you make are a lot more likely to stick if people respect your authority to make them.)

Pfaff began by sketching in the basic details of Wills's upbringing in the Church, moved on to a meandering gloss on the book under discussion—"Wills's argument is less that the Catholic priesthood is a 'failed' tradition than that it is an illegitimate one," he observed—and made friendly mention of an earlier book by Wills, Papal Sin, "his admirable and cogent book of 2000 on intellectual dishonest in the modern papacy."

And then, as NYRB critics are often wont to do, he left behind the book he was nominally reviewing in favor of whatever he had on his own mind, which turned out to be some ruminations on the new pope, Francis. Wills, a frequent NYRB contributor, was surely as hurt as furious. His response, published in the NYRB two issues later, began, "I cannot object if a person finds a book of mine too onerous or boring to read but, in that case, he should not pretend to review it, as William Pfaff did. To spare himself the labor of discussing Why Priests? he wanders back to things remembered from the time when he still read books. We get his views on the history of Jansenism, the trappings of various European royal courts, the Syllabus of Errors, church reform that he thinks desirable (married priests) and that he thinks improbable (women priests).

"None of these has anything to do with my book."

Wills went on to score Pfaff for errors large and small—or should it be said large to Wills and small to many a spectator in the cheap seats? He corrected Pfaff on what Pfaff called the "controversy" as to whether Paul wrote the Letter to Hebrews (a "scholarly consensus" was reached long ago that Paul did not, even if Pfaff didn't notice), and asserted that Pfaff "would not have confused the Thomistic meaning of transubstantian with consubtantiation" if he'd read what Wills had had to say on the subject.

In short, Wills left Pfaff, as authors of books critiqued in the NYRB almost always leave their critics, sliced and diced and gibbeted for crows to feast on. And then Pfaff, as NYRB critics almost always do to the authors who just eviscerated them, bounced right back up to draw and quarter him and dangle the pieces of carcass from lampposts.

It's nice to bat last.

Pfaff professed puzzlement at Wills's upset. "He seems to want from me either celebration or an attack or denunciation that he could brilliantly confound, dazzling us all with scholarship," Pfaff said in response. "The ill temper and rudeness of his letter notwithstanding, why should I criticize him? I have made his point, and if readers want to know more they should buy his book. It is an earnest book. . . . It has no particular present-day importance that I can see, since the clergy have dominated the church for more than seventeen centuries and are unlikely to fling off their cassocks, abjure their vows, renounce their ordinations, and put Vatican City out for commercial development because of Mr. Wills's book.

"My other subject, the election of the new pope with the prospect he seems to offer of further change in a church still in convalescence from its bruising confrontation with post-Enlightenment European civilization, seems to me considerably more important."

Which is Pfaff's way of saying to Wills, "Forgive me, but my mind is hopelessly engaged in the real world."

If Clive James truly can't find hostile literary criticism in this country, it's because he's looking for hatchets instead of stilettos.

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