The Good Word & Other Words

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

When Wilfrid Sheed is not writing novels (his latest being Transatlantic Blues), he writes criticism, and vice versa. He is a transplanted Briton who moved with his parents to the United States in 1940. He returned to England in 1946 for his university years; but, having taken a liking to America during his adolescence, he later made another westward crossing of the Atlantic to establish his home here. His experience of life and education in both England and America gives him a special advantage in his critical writing about such authors as Cyril Connolly and Evelyn Waugh, on the one hand, and Edmund Wilson and James Thurber, on the other.

The Good Word & Other Words is a collection of fifty-two critical essays published (except for one) during the 1970’s in the New York Times Book Review, the New York Review of Books, and elsewhere. Most of them are either book reviews or essays on British and American literature. The thirty-four brief essays in Part One all appeared first in the New York Times Book Review in Sheed’s column “The Good Word.” They cover a wide range of literature and subliterature—since Sheed the novelist draws from many diverse sources for his satiric presentation of life and character, Sheed the critic cannot be expected to restrict himself to the “best” literature.

“Edmund Wilson, 1895-1972” is both a memoir for a departed friend and a tribute to a major American critic. Wilson, says Sheed, “set a standard of scholarship-as-adventure that has vivified even his enemies and helped liberate academic diction from the slithy pedants for the next generation.” One can imagine the liveliness of Sheed’s own writing as perhaps having been influenced by his early reading of Wilson’s essays in the New Yorker that he fondly recalls in his closing paragraph.

Certainly, his comment that Wilson’s criticism “can sometimes be read as a play of voices” may also be applied to Sheed’s, in which the critic’s voice is often followed by another, unidentified but clearly distinct. To illustrate: writing on authors’ coming out of their closets—to reveal their homosexuality or their sectarian or political beliefs, for example—Sheed warns of the troubles that may be caused by those who welcome the uncloseted to their ranks. “Partisans want their writers out of the closet all right, but on a very short leash. Just say that you’re happy, Ivan, in spite of the mistreatment, and we’ll handle the publicity.” As he is nearing the end of a “meditation on the difficulty of resolving novels these days to anyone’s moral pleasure,” he brings up the matter of national differences in a concern for honor: “The French, who like to think of themselves as the wickedest people on earth, would tell you that Americans are . . . childishly obsessed with honor. These things happen, my friend. We are men of the world, no?”

Sheed makes no pretense of being a “heavyweight” reviewer. “I leave that to the professors,” he might say. He flicks a right, jabs with the left, and dances away. He even engages now and then in a little sparring with other critics, as in “Howe’s Complaint,” in which he takes on Irving Howe for having professorily chided Philip Roth for being superficial and funny in Portnoy’s Complaint. Sheed himself grants Roth talent only but he feels that Roth, “not precisely a satirist nor exactly a pure humorist,” still did pretty well in Portnoy’s Complaint. “Criticism is a contact sport,” says Sheed, but he rarely attempts any knockout blows. He is in the sport for the fun of it, to exercise his mind and perhaps to pass on to his readers some commonsense observations. If his opponents get a bruise here or there, they will soon recover.

Having published novels himself and having written them with an aim at more than mere commercial gain, Sheed is well aware of the plight of the “literary” writer competing with hacks, hoping to attract some discerning readers while he looks longingly at the hacks’ sales figures and perhaps listens to the hacks themselves being interviewed on talk shows where they and their host promote their latest “smasheroo.” “Four Hacks” is a funny parody interview with Irving Trustfund, Peaches Smedley, Percy Fang, and Aldershott Twilley in which Sheed concludes that all hacks, while varying greatly in quality, “share a certain turbid homogeneity of thought and phrase which perhaps explains their popularity.” In “Genre Writers” he returns to the hacks, discussing the attempts that have been made to “smuggle” such writers as P. G. Wodehouse, Ross Macdonald, and James M. Cain into literature. They are only done a disservice though, since “when they are approached as major writers they lose all their strength and don’t even seem as good as they are. The first extravagant phrase kills them like frost.”

Although published respectively in 1972, 1975, and 1973, three essays on George Orwell, Cyril...

(The entire section is 2062 words.)