The Charlotte News



Now, What Is A Book?

Sinclair vs. Tribune

--By W. J. Cash

Site ed.note: Cash's one-month earlier criticism anent what constitutes a "book", to which he refers here, was "The Professor's Prize" - December 19, 1937, regarding the award of the North Carolina Mayflower Society Cup to scholarly discursions, not really "books".

For an earlier take on Upton Sinclair, see "The 'Goose-Step'", January 30, 1923, among Cash's early college editorials in the Old Gold and Black, this one regarding Sinclair's 1923 book of the same name arguing that capitalistic society adversely impacts education and culture by promoting uniformity.

NOT LONG AGO I had something to say on this page about what actually constitutes a "book." Wherefore I find myself interested in a controversy now in progress between Upton Sinclair and Irita Van Doren, editor of "New York Herald-Tribune Books." Ordinarily, a controversy in which Upton Sinclair is mixed up is a pretty good thing to stay away from, for ever since I first heard of him he has had three or four controversies going at once. And usually about his precious books.

But for once, it seems to me that his irritability is justified. For what Irita did was to inform him that she wouldn't review his "Flivver King" wherein he takes old Henry Ford apart on what purports to be a realistic basis--or, indeed, any of his other books "because so many of them are printed in pamphlet form, and are hardly books in any sense of the word." And that seems to me to be about as idiotic a measure of a "book" as I have ever heard of. It is to say, in effect, that a "book" is something running to some definite length, say 60,000 words or more, bound in cloth or leather or boards, and issuing from some regularly established publisher at from $2 to $5 or more.

Does Irita actually believe anything so foolish as that? I have my doubts that she does. For if she did, then she'd have had to rule out Vardis Fisher in his early incarnation, since his first book appeared in most peculiar form from the press of a bush publisher. And she did not rule out Mr. Fisher. Or if Irita were endowed with the capacity to skip around through centuries past, she'd have had to rule out De Foe's "True-Born Englishman" and "The Shortest Way with Dissenters," not to say the greater part of the works of Dean Swift, while leaving in, say, Lever's "Handy Andy" and the later Bertha M. Clay's "Weaker Than a Woman."

When Is A Book Not A Book?

Moreover, the "pamphlet" charge won't even hold against "The Flivver King," which is the particular book which Mrs. Van Doren is refusing to review. Sinclair says the thing runs to 72,000 words, which is a book even by the test of length. To make her case good here, the editor would have actually to lay down the proposition that a book can't be a "book" if it is bound in paper covers and sells at less than the standard price!

No. Irita obviously doesn't believe anything so foolish as the thing she alleges herself to believe. She is entirely too good a reviewer for that. Wherefore, then, her decision to leave Mr. Sinclair out of her pages? Is it because he writes exceedingly badly? It seems unlikely. I don't share the opinion of those who profess to see in him one of the greatest of living American writers of prose. But he writes a good deal better than most men who get printed, and astoundingly better than many of the persons who are reviewed in the pages of "Herald-Tribune Books" regularly.

Well, then, is it because he is notoriously a propagandist? Not even that will hold water, I believe. Mrs. Van Doren knows very well, I suspect, that many of the greatest writers of the world--Dickens, Hugo, Dostoevsky, Zola--have been militant propagandists. And, indeed, I do not need to appeal to the record of the past to show that it's improbable that she believes a man is damned simply because he is a propagandist. For she regularly prints in her pages reviews of the works of, say, Thomas Mann, who on occasion is as stout a propagandist as ever came down the line. She regularly prints reviews of the works of John Dos Passos, an obvious and unremitting propagandist. And of Erskine Caldwell--another.

Ultimately, I make bold to think, the secret of the matter does not really reside in what Mrs. Van Doren thinks, but in the policy of the Herald-Tribune.

Even If It Contains Some Tripe

I am not arguing for that book. I suspect, in fact, that it probably contains a few home truths which might stand saying--together with a great deal of highly colored tripe. But that is only my opinion, without having read it--and an opinion based on nothing but the perusal of some of Mr. Sinclair's earlier books. Nor am I questioning the right of the Herald-Tribune to refuse to review a book it doesn't want to review.

Merely, it seems to me that it would have been more decent and more wise to say flatly that it was not thought desirable to review Mr. Sinclair's book because of the nature of its content--without attempting to hide behind an utterly untenable definition of "a book."

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