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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Belles Lettres Papers

Charles Simmons

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To purchase The Belles Lettres Papers

Title: The Belles Lettres Papers
Author: Charles Simmons
Genre: Novel
Written: 1987
Length: 175 pages
Availability: The Belles Lettres Papers - US
The Belles Lettres Papers - UK
The Belles Lettres Papers - Canada
Belles Lettres - Deutschland
  • "Portions of this book appeared in slightly different form in The Nation and The New Republic under the name Frank Page."

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Our Assessment:

B- : not nearly as sharp and revealing as hoped for

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Atlantic Monthly . 8/1987 Phoebe-Lou Adams
The LA Times . 19/7/1987 Angela Rinaldi
The NY Times Book Rev. . 24/5/1987 Stephen Schiff
Time . 18/5/1987 R.Z.Sheppard
The Times . 13/8/1987 Andrew Sinclair
The Washington Post . 28/5/1987 Susan Dooley

  From the Reviews:
  • "Mr. Simmons, a former editor of The New York Times Book Review, knows the devious ways of reviewers, literary agents, and drunken authors. (...) His novel about these matters is wickedly amusing." - Phoebe-Lou Adams, The Atlantic Monthly

  • "Any resemblance between the novel’s characters and the real-life characters that populate the industry is not coincidental. One can imagine the contents of this book being snickered at over drinks and the book’s jacket peeking out of carryalls that are being toted out to the Hamptons or Woodstock for the weekend. An obviously “in” novel for the literati, The Belles Lettres Papers crosses several audiences. (...) Finally, Simmons has written a novel in which anyone who has ever worked for a social-climbing tyrant can identify with." - Angela Rinaldi, The Los Angeles Times

  • "(A)s milieu novels go, it aims for a strangely select audience. (...) Lovers of literary quizzes will savor Mr. Simmons' wordplay (.....) Despite all its vim and gossip value, The Belles Lettres Papers is cracker-thin and brittle. (...) But if Page is designed to let the author give his own back a hearty thump, Mr. Simmons' chief intent seems to be to scandalize: You think the administration of this book review is all probity and unswerving idealism ? Well, get a load of this. Unfortunately, the loads Mr. Simmons plops before us don't kick up much dust." - Stephen Schiff, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Simmons uses the broad strokes of Restoration comedy to distance the new book from his former employer. (...) The Belles Lettres Papers, Simmons' parting shot, should stir up the small world of gentlemanly journalism" - R.Z.Sheppard, Time

  • "In his wickedly witty novel, Charles Simmons names real names. (...) The self-serving managing editor always looks for le cliché juste and the ball-point in the back. (...) (A) bookish faction disguised as fiction" - Andrew Sinclair, The Times

  • "Charles Simmons, who once worked for a book review that is part of a newspaper, but not the one you are now reading, has poked his pen into the pretensions of the literary world in such good-natured and humorous a fashion that it's hard to imagine anyone being cast down or cast out by the book. It is also hard to imagine anyone unfamiliar with the world of letters having a clue as to what Simmons is writing about. But for readers who know the difference between John Barth and Karl Barth, The Belles Lettres Papers will provide an amusing hour or two. (...) Simmons is not sufficiently upset by the world he's parodying to use weapons that will produce a big bang. Instead, he contents himself with a BB gun, peppering the book with sharp comments that sting rather than destroy. (...) Slight as Simmons' material is, he has made it funny enough that one hopes that, now that he's given the book world a kick in the axis, he will recall past hurts and seek vengeance once again." - Susan Dooley, The Washington Post

  • "In 1987, Charles Simmons published The Belles Lettres Papers, a roman à clef about his years as an editor at The New York Times Book Review. It is certainly the funniest thing ever to have been written about that journalistic organ. It is also, alas, a devastatingly accurate portrayal of the kind of intellectual fatuousness that has made American cultural journalism today such a tawdry business." - The New Criterion (9/1998)

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Charles Simmons worked as an editor at The New York Times Book Review (NYTBR) for several decades, and The Belles Lettres Papers has been billed as something of a roman à clef -- a behind-the-scenes look at the world of book reviewing at that leading American review-outlet. The fictional magazine at the heart of Simmons' novel isn't quite just a thinly-disguised version of the NYTBR, however. For one, Belles Lettres ("the hyphen disappeared in 1960") is a stand-alone magazine, not a newspaper section. It was founded in 1951 -- i.e. is also a much younger institution than the NYTBR -- and it has also been, since 1960, part of a larger media conglomerate, Protean Publications. As such, it's something of a cross between the NYTBR and The New York Review of Books (the editor has a David Levine caricature of himself hanging in his office), with a dash of other publications, such as The New Yorker; for "Cyrus Tooling's Protean Publications" you can also easily read: S.I.Newhouse, Jr.'s Condé Nast. A book-review outlet, Belles Lettres nevertheless also strayed further afield at times during its history, such as devoting an entire issue to a: "30,000-word, step-by-step instruction by an MIT undergraduate for assembling an atom bomb" (shades of The Progressive's notorious 1979 The H-Bomb Secret issue (full issue (pdf)). In one respect, however, Belles Lettres closely resembles the NYTBR: in clout and market-dominance: it is: "the most powerful literary magazine in the world" -- and so also: "At its peak Belles Lettres was getting fifty-six cents of the book industry's advertising dollar".
       The Belles Lettres Papers is narrated by Frank Page, hired just out of college, in 1983, by then-editor Jonathan Margin -- an actual: "literary bloke", unlike some of those who have run the magazine. The novel consists of thirteen chapters, the first of which is an overview of the history of the magazine, with the rest describing some of Frank's experiences while working there. Some of this material was previously published, in slightly different form, in The Nation and The New Republic -- mostly under the name 'Frank Page', no less (though, for example, 'The Shakespeare Number' (published as the penultimate chapter in the novel, as 'False Lies') did appear under Simmons' own name) -- and unfortunately too much The Belles Lettres Papers still has the feel of being a strung-together set of episodes rather than a full-fledged novel.
       The novel features a variety of incidents that shake things up, from the magazine anointing: "the twenty-five best writers in America" (somewhat more meaningful, coming from a magazine with Belles Lettres' reputation, and at a time before such lists were a dime a dozen) to a longtime employee, a forty-six-year-old copyboy, raking in thirty thousand dollars a year by selling off review copies (and making even more money on the side by selling off something even more valuable to publishers) to editor Margin having an affair with his secretary, who uses that relationship to get published as a reviewer in the magazine.
       Eventually, there's also a change at the top, when Margin is ousted and replaced by Newbold Press (poached from: "the Rupert Murdoch organization" a few years earlier), a real magazine-man but with little literary background or expertise (not raising an eyebrow when someone suggests a book should be reviewed by 'John Bark' ("author of 'The Fot-Seed factor'") or when someone else suggests: "his brother, the theologian Karl Bark" might be a better fit). Press gets his comeuppance (and the boot) when he falls for nine obviously (but also cleverly) faked Shakespeare sonnets, printing them in: "what came to be known as "the Shakespeare number"". Potentially hugely damaging -- recall the TLS's Voynich manuscript: the solution fiasco --, Frank and Margin cleverly manage to save the day, making for a modestly amusing resolution and conclusion to the novel.
       These incidents are fairly amusing, but mostly very casually and quickly presented; The Belles Lettres Papers largely feels very thin. Kudos to Simmons for his versifying -- he actually wrote those nine would-be Shakespearean sonnets, and they're all printed in full her -- but the episode also has the feel of a short story that's been pressed into service here (though, as noted, it does make for a solid resolution to the novel, in how the disaster is fixed). So much here would do better if at least a bit more fleshed out.
       Simmons is at his best when he sticks to what he presumably knows best -- the actual editorial work, and the (kind of) people involved in book-reviewing. Briefly, he even lets himself get carried away with the art of the craft, such as when Frank considers all the types of bad writing editors are confronted with, including:

     Then there is ambitious bad writing, which prefers empathy to sympathy, myself to me; takes a chance with religiose for religious; elemental for elementary, nubile for zaftig (Barry Vellum defended nubile as meaning a woman with big nubes); avoids the ultimate preposition at all costs; connects separate sentences with a colon (as if to celebrate the logical connection of the second to the first); and finds a place for indeed in every paragraph. Most of the inelegancies results, strangely, from a striving for elegance and, when corrected help satisfy, more than almost any other activity, the editor's need for self-esteem.
       The Belles Lettres Papers is satire, but not nearly as biting or sharp as one might have wished. Most amusing -- at least for those who are most interested in the behind-the-scenes peek at the literary world -- are the parts when he comments on the writers of the day, i.e. where he actually names names. The putting together of the magazine's top-25 list gives him some nice skewering opportunities and includes the novel's best lines and scenes (and the best chapter title: 'Who the Fuck is Harold Brodkey ?'), from the pithy:
     "Where is Renata Adler ?" someone asked.
     No one seemed to know.
       To the more elaborate build-up to the punchline of:
     "Why is Mary McCarthy, who has lived in France half the time, on a list of best writers in America ?"
     "By 'in America,'" Mr. Margin said, "we merely mean 'American citizen.' Just as I.B. Singer is on the list although he came here as a young adult and doesn't write in English."

     "In that case, George Steiner is an American citizen living in England. Why can't he be on the list ?"
     Mr. Margin nodded for me to answer.
     "Many reasons," I said.
       (Demerits, however, for the misspelling of 'Charles Bukowski'.)
       (The final top-25 list is, of course, also of its time, but no more hit and miss than most such lists are; Pynchon was in the running but fell short; John Hawkes and Donald Barthelme make the cut -- as did, along with many of the usual suspects, Woody Allen, James Michener, Herman Wouk, and Lewis Mumford.)
       Reviewers and who gets to review what get some attention -- though not that much more than in your usual investigative magazine article on the subject. Still, it's fun when Simmons names at least some names, as in the discussion of Norman Mailer's then new novel, Ancient Evenings. This is one of the few places Simmons' NYTBR-experience appears to be clearly reflected in what he presents as, for example, among the names floated to review the Mailer is Benjamin DeMott's:
     "Ben DeMott would be thrilled to do it, and he's a soft touch."
     "We're not interested in a 'soft touch,' we are interested in a sound judgment,"
       In fact, as some readers (back when the novel, The Belles Lettres Papers, came out) might have recalled, Benjamin DeMott did write the NYTBR's cover-page review of Ancient Evenings (10 April 1983, i.e. when Simmons was still an editor there), (in)famously judging: "this 700-page work is something considerably less than a heroic venture botched in the execution. It is, speaking bluntly, a disaster". (Worth noting, also: Simmons published 'The Mailer Assignment' -- the piece that is reproduced in the novel, in slightly different form (but including exactly the same passage as quoted above), as the chapter 'How Belles Lettres Worked' -- in The Nation (under the name Frank Page) in the 26 February 1983 edition -- i.e. some six weeks before DeMott's review appeared ...; make of that what you will.)
       There are some other names tossed into the mix, too -- from the readily dismissed Morris Dickstein ("'Flaccid,' someone said") to:
     "I think Joyce Carol Oates would know what to make of it," he said.
     "She has a high shit threshold, but not high enough," Barry said.
     "Speak up ! Speak up !" Virginia said.
     "Joyce Carol Oates does not have a high enough shit threshold to review Norman Mailer's new novel," Barry said loudly.
       As to critics generally, Simmons is sharply dismissive:
     "Let me get this straight. I pick ten critics ..."
     "The ten best critics."
     "There aren't ten good critics around," I said.
     "So ? The least worst. You get the idea."
       Frank is a fine narrator, and there's quite a bit of good repartee in the novel, but it all feels more like a gentle sketch than an acerbic reckoning. There are some needle-sharp pricks along the way, but on the whole Simmons' workplace novel is more good-natured than cruelly exposing. There are quite a few amusing ideas here -- not least what happens to the review Margin's secretary-turned-lover writes, and what then happens to her -- but Simmons doesn't gleefully revel in all these episodes with nearly enough patience.
       There's a character-list at the opening of the novel, and with editor names that include Serif, Deckle, Overleaf, and Margin readers can't really expect anything but the broadest humor then. Certainly, parts of The Belles Lettres Papers are reasonably funny, but not nearly enough of them -- and those looking for dirt about the NYTBR have to scratch quite deep to find any.

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 April 2022

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Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Charles Simmons lived 1924 to 2017. He was also the editor of The New York Times Book Review.

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© 2022 the complete review

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