Why some critics drive writers to a cabin in the woods
I’m fascinated by curious juxtapositions, which always get me thinking, and this week presented an intriguing one. First, and most sadly, J.D. Salinger passed away, a man as famous for hating being famous as he was for writing “The Catcher in the Rye.” Second, Martin Levin, Books Editor for The Globe and Mail, wrote an article entitled, “You suck, and so does your writing” wherein he bemoans the fact Canadian writers aren’t more brutal (and witty) in their invective against one another.
Now, I know Martin Levin slightly, and look forward to getting to know him better, and admire him immensely, and I can see how such literary feuds as those between Gore Vidal and most everyone else would sell papers, but I’m not sure more eviscerating reviews are really what either writers or literature needs. I sympathize with Levin’s wanting to get more eyes glued to the page, but as a writer, I cringe.
Partly I cringe because I fear coming under that sort of attack myself, but also because I’ve seen what it can do to good writers, and I’ve seen how, sometimes, the reviewer’s aim is not to serve literature, but to feed the fire of their own careers on the charred bones of their peers. The emotional cost to a writer can be scathing, and I’ve known more than one writer to be irrevocably silenced.
Some might say that if you can’t stand the heat, you’ve no business baking pies in the first place. Possibly. Then again…it’s far easier to write when one is, at least, not dodging stones. All writers have horrible, snaggle-toothed critics living in our heads, and I for one don’t need any more. I’m not saying books shouldn’t be fairly reviewed, but I have yet to find an occasion where snark and cruelty is the best response.
I think, for example, of the peculiar review Walter Kirn wrote for Jeffrey Lent’s book, A Peculiar Grace. There was, alas, no grace in the review, just, lots of verbal pyrotechnics that displayed Kirn’s own abilities to turn a phrase. It’s stayed with me that review, like one of those trailers for horror movies that pop up on the television without warning and leave me with horrible images seared on my brain. Or, as my grandmother would say after eating cucumbers…it repeats. (I’m now far less inclined to read Mr. Kirn,and more inclined towards Mr. Lent. I loved Mr. Lent’s In the Fall, and look forward to reading all his work.) Perhaps I ought to note here that Mr. Lent lives in the Vermont woods. Yes, exactly.
Martin’s right, of course, when he says, “Writers have always loathed and envied other members of the tribe.” I could give a few recent, truly nasty examples in Canadian literary circles, but I’m not going to, because exposing people’s bitterness, pettiness, insecurity and general bad behavior doesn’t feel either kind or useful to me.
One of the great challenges of being a writer is dealing with envy – the only one of the seven deadly sins which gives the practitioner no pleasure whatsoever, but is corrosive and clinging – and not dealing with it can be psychosis-inducing. Salinger loathed fame, in part because of the nastiness of it. In an article first published in 1963 by Commonweal, (http://www.commonwealmagazine.org/salinger-and-his-critics) by Donald P. Costello, discussing Salinger and his critics, Costello asked why critics were beginning to jilt Mr. Salinger and said, “Perhaps it is partly because a critic finds it as much fun to destroy a reputation as to mold one.”
Fun? Really? I understand Salinger’s decision to move to the woods completely. I do it myself from time to time, although thus far I’ve returned after a period of emotional and spiritual recalibration. Perhaps one day I won’t.
We live in an era where fame, any kind of fame, is admired. We are seduced into thinking that infamy is as desirable as the respect of one’s peers, and that public recognition is more important that personal integrity. Do we want to further that? Although it may be tasty for the moment, experience tells me it has no lasting value, rather, that as I said before, it is corrosive.
Martin Levin himself mentions the notoriously snarky Dale Peck, who said about Rick Moody, “He is the worst writer of his generation.” Peck was known for this sort of review to the extent his collection was called, “Hatchet Jobs.” When his novel “What We Lost” came out, literary folks rubbed their hands together, waiting for all those writers he’d slashed to return the favor. They didn’t. It was a good book, and people said so. Dale Peck has since given up such vitriolic reviews. One can’t help but wonder if the agony of waiting to be hit over the head with a hammer cured him.
I don’t think Canadian writers are too nice. We have our fair share of nastiness, sure; I just don’t see any reason to encourage it. Timothy Findley, who was a friend and mentor, told me criticism at its best explores how a piece of writing should be approached, whether it achieves its intention, and if not, why not. As for the rest, if we want our writers to keep going, let’s review books with equal portions of fairness, consideration, insight and respect. Otherwise, we might just find all the writers follow Salinger’s example and head for the woods, writing only for themselves. What a loss.
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