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August 10, 2004

The Wieseltier Fallout Continues (With Afterthoughts)

by Ron Hogan

Mark and Terry contemplate the response to Leon Wieseltier's sloppy rant in Sunday's NYTBR. Terry basically says, yes, the piece is bad, but as an editor, Tanenhaus has a professional obligation to run it as is, while Mark says balderdash--if you ask for a book review and you get something else, of course you can kill it.

But both say it much less glibly than that, so you should read what they say carefully and consider their positions well. My own take is somewhere in the middle: When you ask professional writers to review books for you, you should pay them for it whether you like it or not, but you shouldn't have to run substandard material. Obviously, someone's always going to find a slippery slope between killing a review for failing to live up to a critical standard and killing a review for the opinions it expresses, but sometimes you have to be willing to be seen as sliding down a slope when you know you're climbing.

If that seems troublesome, look at it from another angle: if you were a book editor rather than a book review editor, would you accept and publish a manuscript that, while superficially competent, was of lesser quality than what was promised (contracted for, even), especially if you knew the author was capable of better work?

Or, a sillier case: if you got a sloppy haircut, would you just accept it silently and resign yourself to looking ridiculous for a week, or would you tell the barber to do something to fix it before you got out of the chair? Remember, it's your haircut, and you're paying for it.

As you can guess, I'd have no problem telling Wieseltier to rewrite. And if he balked, I'd either pay him his kill fee and find a more competent reviewer or, if truly pressed against the wall, run his piece and then lose his phone number for good. I speak from experience on the other side of this issue, because I have had a review killed by a managing editor because I was told I hadn't made my case. I responded to his (forwarded) email by staying at my computer, rewriting the piece, and sending it to my editor within the hour. And that's the review they ran. Mind you, it was a paragraph long, so it's not like I exerted myself in a spectacular fashion; I just did a little more work to deliver a product that satisfied my client's requirements. Because I'm a professional, and that's what professionals do.

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