THE SPINE JANUARY 11, 2010
The first editors of the first issue of The New Republic in 1914 began their books and arts section with what was, and still is, a bristling admonition to critics. The words belonged to Rebecca West, called “indisputably the world’s number one woman writer” by Time in 1947 (though she probably resented the gender modifier). She titled her essay “The Duty of Harsh Criticism,” and she was as harsh on herself as she was harsh on the two males she put to scrutiny, George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells, certified “great men” who have passed way into the deep past. Anyway, her injunction of 96 years ago is ours today.
Your riposte to her call may be that we already have too much harsh criticism. But I believe that bitchy should not be mistaken for harsh. Bitchy is bitchy; harsh is harsh. Harsh is engaged. Harsh actually has standards, gauges of measurement. Harsh even sees some beauty in the ugly. Harsh pleads for explication—no, it demands it. Harsh is comparative ... and also independent.
So we are committed to this kind of harsh.
The book review is dead. No, it is not the New York Times Book Review that is dead. It is predictable and often very slight. No, the New York Review of Books is also not exactly dead. But, long ago, its dateline should, if honesty prevailed, have been put down as Oxford or London at the very least. You have to be at least my age to read the NYRB, and my age is, well… if you care, look it up. Its politics are those of Bertrand Russell. Welcome to the 21st century.
The daily book review is certainly dead, as is even the book review in the Sunday supplements. Soon there will be no movie reviews either. There will be P.R. capsules telling you what the movie “is all about.” But then you’ll have no reason to see it.
So, with the launch of “The Book,” we are committed to both resuscitating and reinventing a genre. And we are doing this on the Web, which has shown little openness to our kind of literary writing. But we believe it can. And we believe it will. We have invested enormous energy (and some real money) in this enterprise. I hope you are both skeptical and open.