VIEWPOINT: ACCURST BE HE THAT INVENTED WAR--AND MISDIRECTED CRITICS

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Being both a writer and a critic, I believe critics are entitled by God (and Dr. Johnson) to flog writers unmercifully when we write badly or stupidly or derivatively. Or for our failure to punctuate or spell. Or if we phony-up emotions or get the facts wrong or create wooden characters or craft slipshod plots or have a tin ear for dialogue.

Or for many other sins, venial or mortal, against the accepted rules of "Fowler's Modern English Usage" and any other standard aesthetic.

I don't believe a critic has any right whatsoever to punish writers for not having written the piece he (the critic) wanted them to write rather than what they actually did write.

Case in point, a columnist for the "Style" section of The Washington Post named Peter Carlson. Mr. Carlson writes regularly about magazines in a feature called "The Magazine Reader," and I recently fell afoul of him. And am still steaming. Here's what happened:

In 1990, Crown published my memoir of Korea called "The Coldest War." It sold very well, is still selling in the Pocket Books paperback, was submitted by Crown to the Pulitzer committee in the biography category (didn't win, darn!), and was called by The New York Times "a superb personal memoir of the way it was."

End of self-promoting commercial.

More recently, in between novels, I began a coming of age memoir I called "The Minstrel Boy," a yarn that began in Brooklyn and ended on the day I flew out of California to the First Marine Division in Korea in 1951, a young replacement officer both scared and thrilled to be going to the wars.

Richard Snow, editor of American Heritage, a slick magazine owned by Forbes and devoted to publishing quality stuff about our past, had read "The Coldest War" and liked it, and asked if I were doing any other writing on the period. I was, I said, and shipped off to him the unpolished first draft of "The Minstrel Boy." My idea, I explained to Mr. Snow, was the still fairly primitive and barely focused one, of positioning this as a sort of prequel to the Korea book. "The Coldest War" began the day I arrived in Korea; "The Minstrel Boy" would end the day I left California for the war.

However jejune (don't you just love the opportunity to slip in a Woody Allen word once in a while?) the notion might have been on my part, Richard Snow liked the yarn and proposed excerpting a chunk of it in American Heritage. I was delighted, Snow did the editing himself, and a 12,000-word piece, the longest, he says, they've ever run, appeared in the February-March issue, handsomely laid out and illustrated with watercolors by Charles Reid from old b&w snapshots from the period.

I heard from a lot of old salts around the country who liked the piece. And then I got a note from Taffy Sceva in San Jose about a blast in The Washington Post. Sceva, a Marine officer in World War II and in Korea who figures in the story, had seen the Peter Carlson column syndicated to his local paper. It took a couple of days but eventually I got hold of the original, to which Richard Snow had already replied in dudgeon, high or low, I'm not quite sure.

Mr. Carlson's critical whine was headlined, "Korean Bore," and in his first sentence he called Korea "the Rodney Dangerfield" of U.S. wars, in that "it don't get no respect." And there he's absolutely right.

It was the smug, sniggering, slightly fatigued tone, that was offensive. The poor man, sounding terribly cross, as if he'd just suffered a paper cut, demanded to know why he (and readers everywhere) had to be exposed to all this rubbish about young men going to war when the story should have been about the war itself.

Ignoring the fact (mentioned in an author's note) that I'd already written "The Coldest War," an entire book about fighting in Korea, Mr. Carlson wondered aloud and long-sufferingly, why the piece in American Heritage wasn't all about fighting in Korea? I think it obvious you don't write the same damned book twice. But that seems to be what Peter Carlson wants.

Why is the fellow so peeved? You like a piece of writing or you don't. Fine. Get over it. Here's Mr. Carlson's clever wrapup: "Perhaps we'll soon read World War II memoirs that end just before Pearl Harbor or profiles of presidents that conclude with their inauguration." And, "An italicized afterword informs the tired, stunned reader that Brady later fought battles there."

I'm terribly sorry about having put dear Peter Carlson through such a harrowing

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