NOTE: This letter was
written in response to a review, "Death overkilled
in Vietnam War"
VIET NAM WAR NOVEL OVERKILLED IN LOS ANGELES
Dear Art Seidenbaum:
What I will not take,
from the Los Angeles Times Book Review or from anyone else, is second-hand
vicious personal abuse. Original vicious personal abuse is always
welcome, of course, but I really must cry "Foul!" to Peter Greenberg's
review of my first novel, "The Short-Timers" (April 22), particularly in
response to Robert Kirsch's excellent West View article, "A Review of Reviewers"
Traditionally, a smug harumphing of "Sour grapes" or "The truth hurts" of "hell hath no fury like an author scorned" has served pompous book reviewers as an effective shield against any response, however justified, from an author. Yet I do not deny Mr. Greenberg his God-given right as a reviewer to hate my book. And he hates it a lot. His overzealous attempt to bulldoze The Short-Timers into the pulping machines and premature oblivion has short-changed every reader of the Book Review who trusted Mr. Greenberg to present a mature judgment of a specific book, not a relentlessly negative and not entirely original sermon based on a cursory glance at my book and upon some rather detailed readings of the book's prior reviews. Peter Greenberg's cut-and-paste pastiche of prior reviews of my book is the world's first Frankenstein's monster of criticism.
Traditionally, lazy book reviewers have simply paraphrased a book's dust jacket blurbs. Mr. Greenberg sometimes echos the dust jacket, which, for example, at one point reads: ". . .to the command of a platoon of 'grunts' in the chaos that followed the Tet offensive." Mr. Greenberg echos: ". . .to take command of his squad in the chaos and confusion following the Tet offensive." Fine. My editors at Harper & Row wrote the dust jacket copy, it is highly laudatory, and lazy book reviewers are welcome to quote it hopefully verbatim and at length.
But look closely at this passage from a review of "The Short-Timers" which appeared in the November 1, 1978 issue of KIRKUS REVIEWS: "One street operation involves a girl VC sniper who picks off half of Joker's patrol; the only way to get her is to have a tank blast the building down from beneath her." And Mr. Greenberg echos: "After a woman VC sniper picks off half of the Joker's patrol, a tank blasts the building down from beneath her." KIRKUS: "When she's finally found and killed, one of the grunts cuts off her feet and drops them into a plastic shopping bag full of feet: souvenirs." And Mr. Greenberg echos: "She is quickly found and executed, and one of the marine grunts rushes over, cuts off her feet and drops them into a souvenir plastic shopping bag." This is not a plagiarization of the KIRKUS review--the passages are not verbatim. KIRKUS uses the word "souvenirs" to modify "feet." Mr. Greenberg, for some obscure reason, uses the word "souvenir" to modify "plastic shopping bag." KIRKUS, incidentally, was in error on a minor point--the shopping bag (described in "The Short-Timers" many times) is not plastic, but canvas. Irony tops off this unique example of verbal deja vu: KIRKUS had only praise for "The Short-Timers", calling it "A terse spitball of a book, fine and real and terrifying, that marks a real advance in Viet Nam war literature."
Okay, so all writers are petty criminals; we all steal a phrase here and there and as many ideas as we can. But I do feel that Mr. Greenberg could at least have had the good taste to paraphrase his cribbing more carefully so that I, who must read all of the reviews of my book, could have maintained my fantasy that the book is receiving a fair and impartial reading from each and every reviewer. Even writers need a few illusions.
While Mr. Greenberg has deprived his readers of his own opinion, he has exhibited admirable skills as a literary researcher. In Jack Beatty's review of "The Short-Timers" in the January 22 issue of THE NEW REPUBLIC, "Death, so obsessively meted out, becomes a bore." Mr. Greenberg: ". . .and deaths become almost boring." NEW REPUBLIC: ". . .not the mannequins Hasford offers us." Mr. Greenberg: "Hasford's characters are nothing short of comic-book mannequins." And after reading a novel with more than fifty characters--most of whom have colorful nicknames--Mr. Beatty and Mr. Greenberg are in perfect accord in their selection of two nicknames which they feel are most representative--NEW REPUBLIC: "His characters--they have names like T.H.E. Rock and Mr. Payback. . ." Mr. Greenberg: "Hasford's characters. . .all have nicknames like T.H.E. Rock and Mr. Payback."
Those fragments of Mr. Greenberg's "review" actually written by Mr. Greenberg are mostly straw men erected by Mr. Greenberg and then boldly demolished by Mr. Greenberg: "Hasford is trying to tell us that war is hell, but so what else is new?" Mr. Greenberg's style glitters with gems like "at the apex of enlightened apathy" and "Hasford commits the ultimate war book crime; He destroys his chapters in order to save them." Actually, the books is not divided into chapters, which in no way invalidates the meaninglessness of Mr. Greenberg's comments, witty stuff, as you can see.
Finally, and at the risk of the "overkill" harped upon in his review ("Death Overkilled In Vietnam War"), here is Mr. Greenberg's final paragraph: "I am not arguing that 'The Short-Timers' is not a reflection of truth. At the very least, I am convinced that this novel is chock full of undeniable truths. But it is a one-dimensional presentation of a war in which there was no clear military objective other than death itself. (NEW REPUBLIC: "a war in which the sole military objective was death.") Simply recounting these horrors (PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY, Dec. 25th: "Hasford's recounting of the horrors. . .") against the redemption of 'short-time' (KIRKUS: "only the redemption of 'short-time'") (the days left to remain in combat) (KIRKUS: "days left to go in this hell") has produced an unfortunate, contrived novel that can't quite do justice to the war."
To Mr. Greenberg's objection of a book merely "chock full of undeniable truths" and to his desperate demand for a more palatable realignment of what even he concedes are the facts, and to his blanket denial of the book's core credibility--all from a man who was never in the Marine Corps nor in Viet Nam, who has no credentials as an author, and who cites neither specific criticisms nor any evidence of any kind to support any of his sweeping generalizations--I can only confess that I feel that Mr. Greenberg's ridiculous high school book report is an unfortunate, contrived mess which does not do justice to my book.
I stand corrected, but firm.
Of the more than thirty reviews "The Short-Timers" has received during the two months since its publication, in periodicals ranging from The New York Times to the tiny Lincoln, Nebraska Star-Journal, four out of five have praised the book highly, and only two reviews have been completely negative. The NEW REPUBLIC's Literary Editor, Jack Beatty, was deeply offended by the book (contagiously, it seems). And Roger Sale, in THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS (Feb. 22), a stuffy pulp-paper journal that instructs aging academics in the joy of intellectual onanism, made a point of dismissing "The Short-Timers" as so inconsequential as to be hardly worthy of review. Yet the ATLANTIC MONTHLY (April), in an essay about "The Deer Hunter", drew illustrative quotes and anecdotes from "Gustav Hasford's arresting novel, 'The Short-Timers'."
Several very famous authors have endorsed the book in print. For example, Harlan Ellison, the modern master of imaginative fiction and one of the Book Review's most popular and respected contributors, has said: "Nothing I've read that tried to convey the monstrousness of that grave-marker known as the war in Viet Nam even remotely approaches the eloquence of THE SHORT-TIMERS. It is one of the most amazing stretches of writing I've ever encountered. Like PATHS OF GLORY, COMPANY K and THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE, it is an inspiring, clenched-teeth, last will and testament that names us all as heirs to the madness of war. Gustav Hasford has written a fine, fine book: honest and painful and terribly important."
In the January 1 issue of NEWSWEEK, the noted critic Walter Clemons called "The Short-Timers" "the best work of fiction about the Viet Nam war."
So what does all this near-unanimous acclaim elsewhere have to do with the validity of Mr. Greenberg's review? Not a thing. Nobody will ever again argue that an overwhelming majority is always right--not since Nixon was king. Everyone, even Mr. Greenberg, has a right to an opinion. Yet I do contend that no responsible Book Review would allow a dilettante writer to exploit a serious and little-known first novel as cannon fodder in the kind of vicious summary execution rightfully reserved for only the sleaziest pornographic trash. Harper & Row and Bantam are hardly fly-by-night publishing concerns. My editor at Harper & Row is one of the most distinguished literary figures in America. Is "The Short-Timers" dishonest, exploitative, or sensationalistic? Has it been sloppily written? Sleazily published? Is it a faddish commercial "product"? Junk? A ripoff? No. It is not, by anybody's definition, deserving of Mr. Greenberg's sneering attempt at metaphor: "It's been a long haul from the body bag to the bookstores, but somehow 'The Short-Timers'. . .has crawled out." Crawled out? Is that anything like your reviewer Suzanne Field's devastatingly witty definition (March 18) of Gerald Green's THE HEALERS as "Prime Slime."? It is unfortunate that H.P. Lovecraft went to his grave prematurely; Mr. Lovecraft was a man gifted with the literary style you appear to favor.
It should be obvious that I am proud of my book. But I am also proud to be part of the West Coast literary community. As an L.A. resident (until recently) for almost ten years, and as a loyal reader of the Book Review for as long as I can remember, I expected, naively, a fair hearing in my own home town, even if I did not always get one in New York. I thought that we were supposed to be the wave of the future out here. But if the Los Angeles Times Book Review is any indication, New York, cold grey New York, will continue to dominate the world of books in America, perhaps indefinitely. Mr. Greenberg, like many of your reviewers, does not evaluate books, he exploits them. My novel about the war in Viet Nam was nothing more than an excuse for Mr. Greenberg to procede to pontificate about War in general, boring his readers with a mock-heroic public display of moral sensitivity and political acumen which comes, unfortunately, too late. And now I am responding, a defensive first novelist, one of the fresh faces in a profession in which even the most talented, under the most favorable circumstances, have professional life expectancies reminiscent of kamikaze pilots. Do your readers benefit from watching two preening egos struggling to destroy or to protect one book purely for (on both sides) selfish and subjective reasons? I don't think so. And after reading "Letters To The Editor" in recent issues of the Book Review I suspect that I am not the only subscriber who believes that there is a vast difference between the lively controversy of tough criticism and the cheap spectacles of gratuitous low blows and unbridled self-indulgence we are being subjected to as the Book Review deteriorates from a somewhat dull yet dignified source of information into an ink-splattered Circus Maximus.
In the Summer, 1978 issue of the most exciting publishing enterprise in California, the WEST COAST WRITER'S CONSPIRACY, Robert Kirsch, a Book Review critic for whom I have great respect, gave his definition of worthy book reviewers: "People who are mature and responsible, not people who are tying to build a reputation at killing off somebody's work, not people who are showing off, but people who are carrying out a reader service, who do what a book reviewer should do. He or she should evoke the book, give the reader a chance to see as much sampling of the writing as he can. In other words, to be fair to the book, to communicate the news and the idea of the book. . ."
I thank you for this opportunity to respond in print.
Morro Bay, California
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