[The following article was originally published in the New York Times Magazine on 15 August 2012. Because I’ve been a reviewer for theater and have written about reviewing and criticism on ROT (“On Reviewing,” 22 March 2009; “The Power of the Reviewer—Myth or Fact?” 23 and 26 January 2011; “Reviewing The Situation: Spider-Man & the Press,” 20 March 2011), where I’ve also posted other articles and comments about the subject (most notably by my friend Kirk Woodward: “The Art of Writing Reviews by Kirk Woodward,” 4, 8, 11, and 14 November 2009; “Bernard Shaw, Pop Culture Critic,” 5 September 2012), I thought Dwight Garner’s remarks were both apt and informative—not to mention amusing (always an asset). This commentary is specifically about literary criticism, but many of the observations hold true for all kinds of critical writing, regardless of field and irrespective of whether the writing is criticism as Kirk and I define it (viewing “works within a larger cultural context . . . primarily in order to expand awareness of the art, or even of life”) or reviewing (looking “at works as single objects in themselves . . .to tell people whether or not it’s worth their while to see”). I believe it goes without saying (which always means someone’s going to say it anyway) that criticism and reviewing are endeavors endlessly worth . . . well, reviewing. ~Rick]
In the spring of 1983, Esquire convened what it called a revenge symposium. The editors asked a group of well-known writers to “let go unbridled comments” on their harshest and least favorite critics. The results were spectacular.
Jim Harrison called his detractors “tweed fops” and “snack-food artists.” Roy Blount Jr. declared about Larry McMurtry, who panned one of his books: “I hear he is absurdly, egregiously — especially in a cowboy hat — short.” Erica Jong recalled that Paul Theroux, while reviewing her novel “Fear of Flying,” referred to her as a “mammoth pudenda.” (Actually he was referring to the novel’s main character.) She replied: “Since Mr. Theroux has no personal acquaintance with the organ in question, I cannot help but wonder whether some anxieties about his own anatomy were at the root (as it were) of his review.”
It hurts to be criticized, and there is exhilaration in firing back, sometimes literally. The novelist Richard Ford, after a dismissive review from Alice Hoffman in The New York Times Book Review in 1986, shot bullets through one of her novels and mailed the mutilated thing to her. “My wife shot it first,” he reportedly said. Years later he spat in public upon the novelist Colson Whitehead, who had harshly reviewed another of his books. Afterward Whitehead commented, “This wasn’t the first time some old coot had drooled on me, and it probably won’t be the last.”
Ford is old-school. Most of us, when confronted with painful words, can’t resort to firearms or loogies, as much as we’d enjoy it. Instead we stew. We struggle to be as chipper as the novelist Kingsley Amis, who commented that a bad review could ruin breakfast but should not ruin lunch. It probably helped that Amis drank at lunch.
We can learn from writers’ responses to unvarnished opinions. Above all we don’t wish to follow the example of May Sarton. When one of her novels was panned in The New York Times Book Review in the late 1970s, she essentially curled up into a fetal ball for months. She detailed this experience in an abysmal book titled, “Recovering: A Journal” (1980).
"I felt,” Sarton wrote, “like a deer shot down by hunters.” Paul Fussell, the historian and critic, pounced on this comment. “The deer does not,” he reminded her, “emerge from the privacy and silence of the woods, come to the edge, wag its antlers at the hunters and invite them to take some shots.”
I’m a professional book critic, someone who is paid, week in and week out, to take some of those shots. It’s a job that mostly suits my temperament. I like people — artists and civilians — who aren’t rude or censorious but who aren’t mush-mouthed either. Since childhood I’ve been a loather of America’s feel-good, everyone-on-tiptoes culture. Give me some straight talk. Give me a little humor. Give me something real. Above all, give me an argument.
My parents are lovely, polite and religious people who raised me to, if I had nothing nice to say, say nothing at all. But I secretly, I think, longed to be the febrile child of a couple like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” left to grow like a weed between gin-soaked couches. I wanted brewing drama. I wanted to be where the words and cocktail glasses were flying.
Working as a critic, you learn to duck incoming words and shards of shattered cocktail glasses. I’ve developed pretty thick skin. Critics take a beating, especially in popular culture. Jean Sibelius’s observation — “No statue has ever been erected to a critic” — seems to be cited somewhere weekly. As well-known quotations go, this one strikes me as especially banal. It implies something disheartening about our culture.
The best work of Alfred Kazin, George Orwell, Lionel Trilling, Pauline Kael and Dwight Macdonald (to name just a few of the past century’s most perceptive critics) is more valuable — and more stimulating — than all but the most first-rate novels. That Brooklyn lacks an Alfred Kazin statue is almost enough to make a bookish type want to move to Oxford, England — or at least to Oxford, Miss.
One case against critics was made, plaintively and memorably, by Dave Eggers, in a 2000 interview in The Harvard Advocate. Here’s a bit of what he said:
Do not be critics, you people, I beg you. I was a critic, and I wish I could take it all back, because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them. It is a [expletive] of work to be open-minded and generous and understanding and forgiving and accepting, but Christ, this is what matters. What matters is saying yes.
I’m a terrific admirer of Eggers’s (who several years ago, I should note, contributed the introduction to a short book of mine), and part of me loves this speech. It’s rousing. It’s like something from the end of a version of “Rudy,” set in an indie bookstore. I can imagine it on a T-shirt.
At risk of ambushing him for something he said more than a decade ago, however, most of me deplores it. Eggers is arguing in uplifting tones for mass intellectual suicide. When a work of art makes you feel or think things, he suggests, keep those things to yourself. He is proposing a zombie nation, where wit and disputation go to die. A place no thinking person above the age of 7 would want to spend an afternoon. Everyone would, on the up side, get a gelato.
The sad truth about the book world is that it doesn’t need more yes-saying novelists and certainly no more yes-saying critics. We are drowning in them. What we need more of, now that newspaper book sections are shrinking and vanishing like glaciers, are excellent and authoritative and punishing critics — perceptive enough to single out the voices that matter for legitimate praise, abusive enough to remind us that not everyone gets, or deserves, a gold star.
The novelist Reynolds Price, who died last year, paused to note the sorry status of book sections in his 2009 memoir, “Ardent Spirits.” When he was starting out in the 1950s, he wrote, a first novel in America received about 90 individual reviews; now a decent first novel is lucky to get 20. Most of those will be amiable squirts of plot description topped, like a lemon slice on a Diet Coke, with the dread weasel-word “compelling.”
If I’ve developed a tough hide in my professional life, away from my laptop I’m as sensitive as anyone else. More so, perhaps. I brood over slights. I possess greatest-hits collection of wounds on my psyche from cutting comments. I can call them up with a mental click, like YouTube clips.
No one likes to be criticized. The sound grates on our ears; it can appear to threaten our status, at work and at home. John Adams said it beautifully: “The desire of the esteem of others is as real a want of nature as hunger, and the neglect and contempt of the world as severe a pain as the gout or stone.” If you have ever had a bit of gout, you will appreciate the keenness of that observation.
I think about literary and cultural criticism all the time. But some days, when my wife and I are letting fly at each other, or when I’m blowing it by being too stern with my children — who was it that said all fathers are Republicans, while all mothers are Democrats? — or when I’m on the receiving end of criticism from my editors, I think I know nothing about words and their power to sting or inform at all.
What is criticism? Karl Marx had a pretty good idea. On a perfect day in a perfect world, he wrote, a happy citizen might “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening” and, finally and best of all, “criticize after dinner,” perhaps with a bottle of wine on the table.
Marx understood that criticism doesn’t mean delivering petty, ill-tempered Simon Cowell-like put-downs. It doesn’t necessarily mean heaping scorn. It means making fine distinctions. It means talking about ideas, aesthetics and morality as if these things matter (and they do). It’s at base an act of love. Our critical faculties are what make us human.
When hard words do come your way, there are many ways to react. Magazines and self-help books are full of advice about smiling through it and saving your defense for later. About giving yourself 48 hours to sulk. About not focusing on the messenger. About, as the Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields song has it, picking yourself up and dusting yourself off.
To writers, Edna St. Vincent Millay offered the wisest counsel. It rings down the decades. “A person who publishes a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down,” she said. “If it is a good book, nothing can hurt him. If it is a bad book, nothing can help him.” In so many words, she was saying, “Believe in yourself.” It’s a message we all need to hear.
It’s an interesting time to be a critic. There aren’t so many of us left, and we’re being squeezed from all sides at the exact same moment that new mediums like Twitter and Yelp have become all opinion, all the time, with little in their digitized streams of yak that a critic might recognize as real criticism.
I’m a fan of Twitter, and I love Jonah Peretti’s funny/mean comparison of it to the homelier Facebook. “Twitter is a simple service used by smart people,” Peretti wrote. “Facebook is a smart service used by simple people.” But Twitter defangs its smart people. On it, negative words have the same effect as a bat flying into a bridal shower.
In a smart article in Slate earlier this month, “Against Enthusiasm,” Jacob Silverman nailed the way that Twitter, at least for writers, has become a “mutual-admiration society” and thus is filled with peril for literary culture.
“If you spend time in the literary Twitter- or blogospheres,” Silverman wrote, “you’ll be positively besieged by amiability, by a relentless enthusiasm that might have you believing that all new books are wonderful and that every writer is every other writer’s biggest fan.”
This isn’t just shallow, he added, it’s untrue. And the constant fake fraternizing has made genuine, honest opinion feel unduly harsh, a buzz kill from the gods. “Reviewers shouldn’t be recommendation machines,” Silverman added, “yet we have settled for that role, in part because the solicitous communalism of Twitter encourages it.”
Bravo, young Silverman! (Please retweet.)
Until you work up the nerve to say what you think and stand behind it, young critics and fellow amiable tweeters, there’s always the advice the critic George Seldes gave in the title of his 1953 memoir: “Tell the Truth and Run.”