Thursday, September 30, 2010

Author's Big Mistake

A few months ago I wrote what I thought was a mostly laudatory review in MHQ of a new book by the military historian Victor Davis Hanson. Although the book is a bit of a hodgepodge — it's mostly a collection of previously published magazine articles and repurposed book reviews — I was particularly interested in, and impressed by, Hanson's nuanced discussion of the difficult time military history faces in the American academic world.

It has always been striking to me that in Britain, military history has no trouble being taken seriously as a scholarly field of inquiry; yet in America, military historians, particularly those who concern themselves with the operational level of war — in other words, the fundamental questions of how wars are fought and won — tend to be looked down on by "serious" historians.

As Hanson notes, when war is studied in American universities, the focus these days tends to be on the usual suspects of race, class, and gender. Those are not misguided inquiries in and of themselves, Hanson is quick to acknowledge; yet it is absurd that Rosie the Riveter or "the face of battle" experienced by the ordinary soldier should be studied and taught to the exclusion of the traditional, big questions of military history: Why do wars start? Why do the winners win and the losers lose? What do wars accomplish, or fail to? I couldn't agree more.

I also offered a few criticisms of the book, in particular the way that Hanson — who began his career studying the wars of ancient Greece and who is now a fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution — repeatedly tries to argue that criticisms of the Bush administration's handling of the war in Iraq are nothing but ignorant fault-finding by people uneducated in the lessons of military history. Over and over he insists that were it not for our "historical amnesia," we would not complain about the mistakes made, the length of the war, the fabricated intelligence about WMD, the torture scandals, since (as he writes in one particularly egregious passage) "almost every American war involved some sort of honest intelligence failure or misinterpretation of an enemy’s motive,” for example.

I actually think I went rather easy on him on this point, because in looking back now it is exactly the sort of rhetorical smarminess exhibited in that sentence — slipping in that word "honest" as if that were an undisputed fact — that is particularly mendacious about much of his argument concerning Iraq and the Bush administration's decisions. Hanson's failure ever to honestly consider or address the costs (and opportunity costs) of the war is part and parcel of his approach: it is idle to argue (as he does) that the surge "worked" or that good has been done in Iraq without considering the price that has been paid in fighting the war in the first place and the toll it still is taking (in lives, strained budgets, military readiness, political and diplomatic capital, and above all America's ability to deter and fight elsewhere if needed to protect our vital interests).

In any case, Hanson responded with an e-mail to the editor saying he had "mixed" feelings about my review, which I presume meant he liked the praise but didn't like the criticism; he then followed it up with a classic example of what Paul Fussell once termed the "A.B.M.": the "Author's Big Mistake," viz an aggrieved and indignant letter for publication from the author explaining that his book is much better than the reviewer (biased as he is) allowed.

As Fussell explains the "dynamics of the author's angry letter":
He or she reads the unfavorable review, which is of course a shock, since author, editor, family, and friends have been telling each other repeatedly how great this book is. Finding out there a stranger who doesn't think so, the author takes pen in hand and dashes off a letter of protest, quite forgetting Harry Truman's maxim "If you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen."
You can read the published exchange here, and decide for yourself whether — as Fussell warned — that the chief effect of the A.B.M. "is simply to reveal to an amused audience how deeply the author's feelings have been lacerated by the criticism he himself so sedulously solicited."

Fussell explained that, for one thing, all serious authors recognize — in the words of Edna St. Vincent Millay — "A person who publishes a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down. If it is a good book nothing can hurt him. If it is a bad book, nothing can help him." Or, as E. M. Forster put it, "No author has the right to whine. He was not obliged to be an author. He invited publicity, and he must take the publicity that comes along."

Fussell is especially scornful of the author's complaint that he must reply to "clarify" or "set the record straight" because he has been "misunderstood": "
If he has [been misunderstood], it's his fault . . . It's his fault because, as a writer, he's supposed to be adept in matters of lucid address and explanation, and if he's failed there, he's failed everywhere.
For another thing, there is the fact (which I can attest to from many personal experiences) that "unfavorable observations in reviews tend to remembered only by authors or reviewers, very seldom by readers." Fussell recalled once having "winced" through a hostile review of one of his own books ("a sad disappointment"; "well-informed fatuity"; "chirpy facetiousness"; "prissy hauteur") and a few hours later been called by friends congratulating him, in all sincerity, on the great review: what they came away with was simply that some major periodical took the book seriously and gave it a lot of play.

I confess I failed to heed Fussell's wise suggestion to the reviewer in the face of the Author's Big Mistake: "Editors often try to cajole the original reviewer into composing an 'answer' to the complaint. The best advice to reviewers is that ascribed to the British Foreign Office: never explain, never apologize. And, in addition, never write without payment."

But Fussell's absolutely golden bit of advice for authors tempted to whine about an unfavorable review, which he gave in an interview that I edited back in my U.S. News days and which struck me as both hilarious and perfect and which as an author I've tried to heed ever since, was this:

"Thin-skinned people should stay out of show business."


A pdf of Fussell's original essay is available here; he revisited the topic in "A Power of Facing Unpleasant Facts," which appears in Thank God for the Atom Bomb and Other Essays.

I'm off for a few days to Denver, where I've been invited to give a talk to the National Animal Interest Alliance that's a bit of a blast from my authorial past: I'm giving a paper on the evolution of the relationship between human beings and dogs.

I'll be back to the blog next week.