Sunday, September 19, 2004

Clark Redfield on Book Reviewing

I keep planning to write something about Elmer Rice's play Dream Girl, and then putting it off. Meanwhile, here are some more quotes from the play's wisecracking and frankly not very likable male lead, Clark Redfield, a book reviewer who -- to the surprise of the heroine, Georgina Allerton -- wants to get out of book reviewing and into the more rewarding field of sportswriting. Here he explains why, when he sells some old review copies to Georgina's used bookstore:

GEORGINA: What have you there?

CLARK: A fine mixed bag. Three whodunits, a couple of epics of the soil, a survey of the natural resources of Bolivia, and a volume called Fun with a Chafing Dish. And here is the prize of the lot: Professor Oglethorpe's two-volume Life of Napoleon, with the pages still uncut.

GEORGINA: You mean you haven't read it.

CLARK: Do I look like a boy who, six years out of college, would wade through eleven hundred pages on Napoleon?

GEORGINA: But I read your review of it in the Globe.

CLARK: I didn't say I didn't review it. I said I didn't read it.

GEORGINA: How could you review it without reading it?

CLARK: Easy. First I quoted liberally from the introduction and quarreled with the author's approach. Next, I leafed quickly through and called attention to three typographical errors. Then I praised the illustrations, grumbled about the footnotes, and intimated that the book added little to what had already been written. Result, a scholarly column and all done in exactly fifty-seven minutes.

GEORGINA: Is that your idea of literary criticism?

CLARK: Look, I'm a working newspaperman and a member of the Newspaper Guild, whose contract guarantees me a minimum wage for a maximum working week. There's nothing in it that requires me to ruin my eyesight and addle my brain in the interest of a Corsican upstart.

GEORGINA: Well, I've often heard that newspapermen are cynical, but I wouldn't have believed that a man who is entrusted with reviewing books could have so little sense of responsibility... If reviewing books is so distasteful to you, why do you do it?

CLARK: Well, you see, I have a periodic rendezvous with my stomach. And I find that reviewing books requires less leg work than covering the police courts. And, not to withhold anything from you, I'm sitting in a very pretty spot for the first opening on the sports page.

GEORGINA (in amazement): You mean you'd rather be a sportswriter than a literary critic?

CLARK: I'm afraid you don't grasp the practical realities of journalism. What you euphemistically call a literary critic is only a miserable penny-a-liner, whereas a sportswriter nestles snugly in the upper brackets.

GEORGINA: I wasn't thinking about the money --

CLARK: Pardon the indelicacy. So you think that writing about books is on a higher level than writing about sports?

GEORGINA: I just think there's no comparison.

CLARK: You're right; there isn't. Any young squirt, fresh out of college, can write book reviews. Just as any beginner in the theater can play Polonius. In fact, the technique is much the same. You put on false whiskers and spout platitudes in a high, squeaky voice. But to go in there and play Hamlet and follow all the sinuous twists and turnings of that tortured soul; or, on the other hand, to analyze the strategy of an intricate football formation or judge a fast ten-round bout on points -- that's something else again. To do that, you really have to know your stuff.

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