The Belles Lettres Papers

When a former editor for the NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW publishes a wicked farce about the inner workings of a New York book review magazine, most readers will wonder where fact ends and fiction begins. Indeed, when parts of THE BELLES LETTRES PAPERS were excerpted pseudonymously in THE NATION and THE NEW REPUBLIC, there was a bit of a stir: It is a roman a clef?

BELLES LETTRES, the most powerful literary magazine in the English language, had a gentle birth as the creation of the rich and cultured Winifred Buckram. Its golden age under the guidance of Xavier Deckle, who understood how to motivate famous authors to write reviews--"Book reviewing is a mug’s game when done regularly. Sparingly it’s a splendid way to lay waste an old friend or make a new enemy"--is now finished. BELLES LETTRES is currently owned by Protean Publications, publishers of such magazines as JARDIN (“the magazine with ten green thumbs”) and MOI (“the magazine for the one person you care most about, You!”).

Frank Page, the narrator, relates how editor Jonathan Margin, his mentor, falls from favor within the Protean empire, partly because of his affair with his secretary, Claire Tippin, partly because it has been discovered that the copy boy, Art Folio, has for years been selling review copies, as well as places on the best-seller list, and partly because the low-brow president of Protean and his wife see him as deadwood.

He is soon replaced by Newbold Press, a painfully unpleasant man who has big plans for BELLES LETTRES but who knows nothing about books. The machinations of Press, Page and Margin’s counterplot, and the hilarious outcome include ridiculous and improbable situations, spies and counterspies, even radical feminists and nine newly discovered Shakespearean sonnets.

Characters’ names are taken from typography and publishing terms -- Samuel Serif, Skippy Overleaf, and Phil Flush are some examples--and insiders to the book business (or those who would like to be) will enjoy the allusions and illusions connected with the glamorous world of publishing. Those with a bent for gossip or for an amusing read will not be disappointed.