My Silk Purse and Yours

Poet, playwright, novelist, biographer, and critic, George Garrett is an omnivorous reader concerned not only with the quality of American literature but with how it has been promoted and criticized. Dividing his book into two parts, “Essays” and “Reviews,” Garrett glides easily between generalizations and specifics, shrewdly noting in an essay on literary biography, for example, how difficult it is for the biographer to tell the unvarnished truth and then stripping Scott Berg’s vaunted claims of independence in a review of Berg’s biography of Samuel Goldwyn.

Garrett is suspicious of the way major review outlets such as THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW and THE WASHINGTON POST BOOK WORLD pick more or less the same titles for review each week when his own catholic reading of contemporary literature yields a field much more various and interesting, so that intelligent readers could easily pick quite different names and titles for review. In short, the “big names” are a product of a system and are not clearly better than many other writers who might have been selected. Garrett’s own reviews bear this out, for he chooses to write about many writers who have not yet received national recognition and yet are demonstrably in the same class as those who have.

The tone of this book calls for special mention. It is genial and critical, amusing and serious, and usually at the same time. Garrett does not like to practice negative criticism because he feels there is so much good work that deserves attention, but this principle does not prevent him from engaging in searching explorations of individual works of art, literary reputations, and the publishing scene—an eye-opening survey for both neophytes and old hands, who may quarrel with some of his judgments, but not with his awesome command of what might be called the contemporary universe of literature and the marketplace in which it must function.