Truman Capote, who had a stake in saying so, once famously declared, “All literature is gossip.” He was wrong, of course, but it’s the kind of declaration that bamboozles literary types by its very implausibility; something so obviously false must be profound, so it gets repeated at cocktail parties and invoked in book reviews (like this one) until it becomes an inside-out cliché, a false truism, a knowing nod towards nothing whatsoever.
Still, an interesting question emerges if you reverse Capote’s dictum and ask whether all gossip is literature. It’s a question that surrounds the most gossipy novel in recent years, The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger, and percolates within the critical jihad the book ignited at the New York Times. The fact that the paper twice reviewed a literary debut by a previously unknown author would be noteworthy in itself; what’s unprecedented is the fact that its reviewers twice ripped the book to shreds — arguing not simply that it fails as literature, but that it should never have been published in the first place.
Why all the fuss?
Weisberger, it seems, once worked as a personal assistant to Vogue editor Anna Wintour, and the novel is thinly veiled account of her nightmarish experiences at the magazine. That this should matter to reviewers at the Times is slightly bizarre — even if, unlike me, you care about Anna Wintour, or you think Vogue has made a significant contribution to Western Civilization. It’s not as though Weisberger is sailing into morally uncharted waters. Saul Bellow’s latest work, Ravelstein, is a thinly veiled account of his friendship with the critic Allan Bloom, and arguably Bellow’s greatest work, Humboldt’s Gift, is a thinly veiled account of his friendship with the poet Delmore Schwartz. Both of Bellow’s books are warts-and-all portraits, and the same can be said, in spades, for Weisberger’s portrait of Wintour. The fact that Wintour is still alive, whereas Bloom and Schwartz were deceased when Bellow immortalized them, cuts both ways. Wintour may be psychically injured by the appearance of her fictional counterpart, Miranda Priestly, but at least she has the chance to distance herself from the ogre Weisberger gives us. With a nod to Capote, then, if at least some gossip is literature, why should Weisberger be pilloried for engaging in it?
None of which is to suggest that The Devil Wear Prada is great art. It is, rather, a wildly uneven book, by turns clumsily self-righteous and wickedly funny. The wafer-thin plot recounts the struggles of the narrator, Andrea Sachs, to maintain both her integrity and her sanity after she lands a “dream job” as personal assistant to Miranda Priestly at Runway. The detail that Andrea’s real ambition is to write for The New Yorker would be a perfect ironic touch — she must endure the slickness of fashion in order to achieve fashionable slickness — except that the author seems to regard this as a altogether commendable goal. She is reminded to keep her eyes on the prize by her devoted boyfriend, Alex, who (gag me) teaches underprivileged children; also keeping Andrea grounded is her roommate Lily, whose hard drinking and promiscuity derive from the fact that “she loved anyone and anything that didn’t love her back, so long as it made her feel alive.”
The chapters with Alex and Lily are at times almost unbearable. Fortunately, they are offset by chapters in which Miranda Priestly takes center stage. Miranda is one of the great comic monsters of recent literature; Cruella de Ville is an obvious antecedent, but Miranda more closely resembles a Hermes-scarf wearing Ahab in pursuit of the great white whale of immediate, absolute indulgence. In Miranda’s universe, two pre-publication copies of the latest Harry Potter book must be flown by private jet to Paris so that her twin daughters can read them before their friends; it’s up to Andrea to make the arrangements on a moment’s notice. Tough, but do-able. More finesse is required when Miranda asks Andrea to hunt down the address of “that antique store in the seventies, the one where I saw the vintage dresser.” Of course, Andrea wasn’t with Miranda when she saw the dresser, so she winds up trekking to every antique store — and, just to be safe, every furniture store — between 70th and 80th Street in Manhattan, grilling clerks to find out whether the famous Miranda Priestly had stopped by recently. Three days later, Andrea admits defeat . . . only to have Miranda inform her, impatiently, that she’s just located the store’s business card, the one she thought she’d lost. The address is on East 68th Street.
Miranda requires up to five breakfasts per morning so that whenever she arrives at the office, a hot meal will be waiting; reheating isn’t an option. The other four must be thrown out because her assistants aren’t permitted to eat in her presence. Nor are they permitted to hang their coats next to hers. Nor to request clarifications if her demands are indecipherable: “Cassidy wants one of those nylon bags all the little girls are carrying. Order her one in the medium size and a color she’d like.”
There’s a kind of grotesque heroism in this, an obliviousness to the feelings of others that is larger than life — and thus mesmerizing. When Weisberger’s novel succeeds, it succeeds on these terms. No one who reads the book will forget Miranda Priestly.
Towards the end of The Devil Wears Prada, Andrea’s novelist friend informs her, “What you don’t seem to realize is that the writing world is a small one. Whether you write mysteries or feature stories or newspaper articles, everyone knows everyone.” Indeed, it’s hard for an outsider to grasp just how incestuous, how inbred, the New York publishing scene is nowadays. The odds of finding a non-conflicted reviewer for a gossipy roman a clef about the scene itself are therefore remote. In theory, this isn’t a problem — as long as the reviewer approaches the task in good faith. (In good faith, for example, I should note that Weisberger’s former writing teacher is a close friend and co-author of mine; on the other hand, her editor at Doubleday once turned down a book I wrote . . . and keep in mind that I’m really an academic, so I’m kind of bivouacked on the outskirts of the milieu Weisberger describes.) To say that the Times lacked good faith in reviewing The Devil Wears Prada understates the utterly unconscionable, and downright vindictive, way the paper went after the thing.
The onslaught began with a full-page review in its Sunday edition by former Harper’s Bazaar editor Kate Betts. Betts herself was once Anna Wintour’s protégé, a point Betts mentions in her final paragraph — not as a disclaimer but rather as an excuse to lecture Weisberger on the ethics of having written her novel: “I have to say Weisberger could have learned a few things in the year she sold her soul to the devil of fashion for $32,500. She had a ringside seat at one of the great editorial franchises in a business that exerts an enormous influence over women, but she seems to have understood almost nothing about the isolation and pressure of the job her boss was doing….”
This may or may not be true, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with what’s between the covers of Weisberger’s book. That, however, is the least of Bett’s concerns in a review which alternates between sniping at the author and sucking up to former Vogue cronies. “Nobody would be interested in this book,” Betts declares, “if Weisberger were spilling the beans about life under the tyrant of the New Yorker.” (Tell that to Brendan Gill whose memoir Here at the New Yorker was a bestseller in 1975.) Betts refers to one of Weisberger’s characters as “a pale imitation of the incomparable André Leon Talley” (For the record, I know more than a few people in the fashion industry, and they’re all remarkably comparable.) and to another as “a cheap shot at the food writer Jeffrey Steingarten, whom she [Weisberger] should have been studying for lessons in how to write.” This is nasty stuff. And it’s of a piece with the rest of Betts’s review — which displays all the emotional maturity and intellectual balance of Leo Gorcey in the old Bowery Boys films. Betts is not critiquing a work of fiction; she’s putting up her dukes to defend her home turf.
You’d think Betts’s outburst would suffice, from the Times’s point of view, would stand as an awkward lapse in editorial judgment but nothing more. You’d be wrong. The newspaper, it turns out, was not through with Weisberger by a long shot. One day later, Janet Maslin weighed in for the daily edition — and matched Betts’s spitefulness point by point. Maslin’s review begins: “If Cinderella were alive today, she would not be waiting patiently for Prince Charming. She would be writing a tell-all book about her ugly stepsisters and wicked stepmother . . . dishing the dirt, wreaking vengeance and complaining all the way. Cinderella may have been too nice for that, but Lauren Weisberger is not.”
Again, what’s actually between the covers of The Devil Wears Prada is mere background noise; first and foremost, Maslin is reviewing not the novel itself but the idea of the novel. She refers to it as “a mean-spirited ‘Gotcha!’ of a book, one that offers little indication that the author could interestingly sustain a gossip-free narrative.” With an indignant nod towards Weisberger’s recent publicity tour, Maslin speculates that the author “can devote a second career to insisting that [the novel] is not exactly, precisely, entirely one long swat at the editor of Vogue.” And again: “The book’s way of dropping names, labels and price tags while feigning disregard for these things is another of its unattractive qualities. It’s fair to assume that nobody oblivious to names like Prada will be reading this story anyway.”
Curiously, Maslin neglects to mention the name Anna Wintour even once in her review. “That was very deliberate on my part,” she later explained to the Daily News. “I think that when a tell-all author takes a cheap shot at a well-known person — in a book that would have little reason to attract attention without that cheap shot — then reviewers need not compound the insult (or help promote a mediocre book) by reiterating the identity of the target.”
Fair enough, but then why review the book in the first place? Given how many books are published each year, and how few the Times actually reviews, why would the paper twice in two days go out of its way to hammer a first novel by a hitherto unpublished writer? (Another point of disclosure: The Times did not review my first novel last year.) The answer cannot be that The Devil Wears Prada was heavily promoted . . . since even a cursory glance at its own bestseller lists will reveal many mega-hyped books the Times wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot highlighter.
Of course, the Times has bigger problems these days — Jayson Blair’s tendentious, fabricated reporting and subsequent resignation, Howell Raines’s white-man’s-burden agonizing and subsequent resignation, and Maureen Dowd’s sneaky doctoring of a presidential quote — than the integrity of its book-reviewing process. In another sense, however, the treatment of Weisberger’s novel is consistent with, for lack of a better phrase, an absence of adult supervision on 43rd Street.
— Mark Goldblatt is the author of Africa Speaks, now available in paperback.