Broadsides: Reviews and Opinions

By Mordecai Richler

Viking Press

Lovers of literature tend to believe that skilled novelists will, as a matter of course, be skilled essayists, and vice versa. This proves little more than that lovers of literature are a foggy-headed bunch indeed. Novelists usually produce essays light on facts and heavy on adorable personal anecdotes, while essayists generally write turgid, allegorical novels featuring characters named Death and Doom and Illness.

That said, it’s hard to find grievous fault with the latest book of essays by novelist Mordecai Richler. Broadsides: Reviews and Opinions is light, funny, and utterly without lasting significance. Within its 254 pages lies proof that a good-but-not-great novelist can, with a lot of hard work and a tolerant publisher, produce a hatful of good-but-not-great essays.

By far the most entertaining work in Broadsides is a series of book reviews written over the years by the author. Richler understands instinctively that serious book reviewers are the lowest form of life; he therefore resigns himself to making fun of the authors he’s supposed to be reviewing, mostly by quoting, without comment, the worst examples of their prose. This strategy serves Richler well, especially since he chooses to review only the very worst that contemporary literature has to offer. In one inspired piece on Maureen Reagan’s autobiography, for example, he succeeds in culling huge laughs simply by reprinting extended excerpts from the book.

In another highly entertaining review, Richler mops the floor with Kenneth Atchity, an obscure professor who has published a book on creative writing: “I’ve read other scribblers on the writer’s craft — say, Henry James, Cyril Connoly and E.M. Forster. But…unlike James, Connoly, or Forster before him, Atchity is actually a professor of writing.” This is satiric writing at its best: dry, clever, and breathtakingly mean. Richler is, at heart, a supreme curmudgeon, and Broadsides is best when the author is indulging his most misanthropic instincts. Luckily, this is most of the time.

Like most other good writers, however, Richler is incredibly lazy, and cannot always resist the urge to go for the easy joke. More often than not, the object of these cheap laughs is women — feminists in particular. Consider, if you will, the following ho-ho on the subject of gender neutral language: “This unseemly distortion of our language, taken to its logical extreme, may yet lead to a revised feminist edition of Shakespeare, where we may look forward to Hamlet musing, ‘What a piece of work is personhood.’” Can Mordecai Richler possibly not know that we have all heard this joke (and variations thereon) fifty times before, and that it is, above all, not funny? That adolescent boys recount this non-joke is somewhat unsettling. That an otherwise resourceful writer like Richler recounts it is somewhat unreal.

Happily, Richler is able to suppress his misogyny in the book’s best piece, a short non-fiction narrative entitled “All the Conspirators,” in which Richler describes, in the driest of prose, his own quest to find the most paranoid conspiracy theorists in the United States. He finds some great ones: one woman in California thinks that the CIA engineered the kidnapping of Frank Sinatra Jr., while a man in New York states, presumably with a straight face, that “our government is now practicing zombie-ism, and doing it in you name.” Editorial comment from Richler is kept to a minimum, demonstrating the author’s grasp of the first rule of journalism: find lunatics, and let them speak for themselves.

For most of this book, the only person speaking is Richler himself. That’s okay; he’s genuinely funny, and occasionally has an insightful thing to say on any number of subjects. Next time, however, he should talk to more conspiracy theorists — me, for example — and leave the discussion of feminism to people who actually know something about it.