This is the second part of a two-part article. Part one appeared in last week’s issue.
One day I received a call from the reception desk: a woman named Cynthia Ozick wanted to talk about writing for Commentary. I knew her name from a few poems I had come across in the literary magazines, and though I had pretty much stopped recruiting, I still liked to think of myself as approachable.
Small, awkward, intense, she arrived with an air of shyness that turned into ardor once she got going, reminding me of certain female graduate students who were like nuns in the library stacks and passionate in the seminars. Volubly thanking me for seeing her, she said that she had just been to The New York Review of Books, where they had all but thrown her out. She went on to tell me in her tight, edgy voice, the swarming eyes behind her scholarly spectacles never leaving my face, about a long novel, eight years in the writing, that she had just submitted. She now wanted to try her hand at reviewing. She said that she was a friend of Alfred Chester. Was I his editor?
I was. Alfred was our star literary reviewer–flamboyant, irreverent, unpredictable, even from one paragraph to the next. A flaming queen with a red wig, crystalline prose style and a razor wit, he seemed about 179 degrees across the human spectrum from this literary vestal virgin. But perhaps not. His stare burned with the same intensity.
We talked about a piece I had written about the life struggle and mind-shrinking indoctrination process of a married graduate student, which she said had confirmed the rightness of her decision to leave graduate school after receiving her master’s degree. Her thesis, too, had been on Henry James. The more we talked, the more I sensed that Cynthia fell squarely into the category that Midge Decter referred to as “lit’ry ladies”–intensely fancy female academic writers.
A new John Cheever novel, The Wapshot Scandal, had recently come out. I chose it because the social dimension of Cheever’s fiction was so front-and-center that Cynthia would be less likely to go astray into narrative gesture and symbolic form. I told her to think of our audience as a bright lawyer in Minneapolis who is broadly literate rather than narrowly literary. What followed from that was not to get involved in the “internal” mechanism of the novel but rather to use it to comment on the character of Cheever’s fiction. Or again, she might think of putting the novel into an interesting context: the ethos of the New Yorker fiction writer, say, or WASP hegemony under duress, or the role of male fantasy in his work. Something like that.
In due course Cynthia’s review arrived, and after a few sentences I knew we were in trouble.
What is the difference between a minor and a major writer? Certainly it is not subject matter: The Wapshot Scandal and Anna Karenina are both about adultery. Nor is it a question of control–John Cheever has an aerialist’s sly command over just how taut the line of a sentence should be, and just how much power must be applied or withheld in the risk of ascent.