Detractors Can Kiss Hitchens’ Ass, So Why Not His Admirers, Too?

At different times in New York on June 1, Christopher Hitchens and Ian McEwan, literary giants whose close friendship has been much remarked upon in the press, were discussing each other in separate venues.

Mr. McEwan was appearing that night on Charlie Rose’s PBS interview show.

“Well, we go a long way back,” Mr. McEwan told Mr. Rose. “And I think he’s one of the great, brilliant wits of our generation …. An hour in his company is like no other.”

In fact the pleasure of his company was had that same day by a group of panelists at BookExpo America. The panel was convened by the National Book Critics Circle, an organization which has of late been making noises about saving the art of book-reviewing, currently being ravished at the hands of newspaper editors, in turn being threatened by publishers with X-acto blades hovering over their budget-spreadsheets.

The panelists, who, besides Mr. Hitchens, included author Francine Prose, Los Angeles Book Review editor David Ulin and New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus, were asked to respond to a survey on book-reviewing ethics the circle had distributed during the conference—including a question about whether friends and acquaintances should be allowed to review each other’s books.

Mr. Hitchens leapt forth with an example drawn from his own life, dubbing himself “the most qualified critic to review On Chesil Beach for the Atlantic Monthly,” despite his close friendship with author Ian McEwan, according to an account of the event published by the Critics Circle blog.

His detractors, he said, could kiss his ass.

The Times Literary Supplement in London, he said, didn’t suffer the “permanent affectation of integrity” that plagues The New York Times.

Paging Mr. Tanenhaus!

“Tanenhaus shrugged off the ‘permanent affectation of integrity’ barb, remarking that he hoped the Times had rid itself of that,” wrote the NBCC blogger. “He then stated his case: the Times will soon be running a review by Jonathan Lethem on McEwan, despite Lethem’s admission of dining with the author, and Tanenhaus noted that it’s a superb essay.”

The panelists seemed almost entirely united on the matter: It’s O.K. for friends to review each other’s books—most of the time.

Mr. Tanenhaus cited his regret that he had passed on a review, by the dancer Toni Bentley, of two books by writers the Review editors feared she knew too well: Terry Teachout and Robert Gottlieb (who in turn writes about dance for The Observer). The review ran in The New York Review of Books.

Benjamin Schwartz, the literary editor at The Atlantic, pointed out in a telephone interview with The Observer—as did at least one of the panelists sharing the table with Mr. Hitchens—that book reviews are not meant as reviews exactly. And he offered that Mr. Hitchens had also reviewed his friend Martin Amis’ Koba the Dread, and called it an “extremely tough review.”

(In that Charlie Rose interview, Mr. McEwan told viewers that it had been Mr. Amis who introduced him to Mr. Hitchens years ago.)

“Obviously the pieces he’s writing are not thumbs-up or thumbs-down endorsements,” Mr. Schwartz said. “They are essays on the books, and who better than someone who knows the writer really well?”

“I don’t see these as service pieces,” he said.

Detractors Can Kiss Hitchens’ Ass, So Why Not His Admirers, Too?