The Critic’s Critic

I read a book review by a well-known critic yesterday in which he systematically dissected a new novel by a celebrated author. I haven’t read the book in question, but the critic certainly made a compelling argument not to pick it up. I have to admit that I was drawn to the review because I had read this author’s previous novel and had had a number of gripes with it and I had heard that this review was not positive.

So there I was, sharing a moment of mutual dislike, only to find I was getting more and more unhappy the further I read. By the time I’d finished the review I felt like quitting writing altogether. It was as if I had started as the matador and ended up the bull. This is always how it goes when I forget just how thoroughly we are all in this together.

As soon as I declare that someone should not have written this or that, that it was dull or trite or obtuse and the writer should have known better, I have condemned myself to a world where to err is a crime, for if I have said it’s true for another, then it must be true for me. Now the page becomes a minefield. Now I have stopped trying to say what I most want to say and am merely trying to stay alive, to avoid death by public shame.

Saying what you most want to say does not always come quickly or directly. A paragraph you love might be all that’s left of 100 pages your discard. Entire books might be written with the sole purpose of teaching you that you are more comfortable with domestic drama than thrillers. One of those books might even get published. We might all dream of existing as a finished product, tinkered to perfection in some secret workshop before taking the stage of life, but to be finished is to be dead.

No matter how much I dislike a story, no matter how much I disagree with its premise or conclusion, I would not wish its author a moment’s torment for having written it. I assume every writer is more than capable of his or her own torment. In the meantime, I will not bother trying to avoid criticism. Rather, I will listen closely to the judgments I am tempted to lay against another; likely as not, they are what I am most tired of in myself.

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