Critic On The Beach

There’s a great scene in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished opus The Last Tycoon where Stahr, a powerful Hollywood producer, is walking on the beach at night in a post-coital glow with his new lover, Kathleen. They come upon an old black man (remember, this is the 1940s), who is gathering fish in a pail. The three get to talking. Eventually, the subject of motion pictures comes up. The man confesses he does not go to them. Stahr is a bit offended and asks why. The old man replies, “There’s no profit in it. I never let my children go.” The scene ends shortly thereafter when the old man leaves, which Fitzgerald describes thusly: “ . . . he went off the beach toward the road, unaware that he had just rocked an industry.” Fitzgerald perhaps knew all too well that whatever one’s supposed station in life, all opinions carry the same potential weight. Stahr should not have cared what this poor old man thought of the work he did, but if a bubble of doubt exists in us, the smallest pinprick will do to release its poison.

Humanity’s fundamental democracy can be challenging in this way. No matter who you are or what you write there will always be somebody who believes your work is too slow, or too commercial, or too wordy, or too simple, or too something, and all somebodies in the end are equal. If the world rushes around and cheers you universally, you know in your heart that your detractors have only been silenced temporarily by the force of current opinion and are meanwhile hardening their resolve, ready to be the voice of Those Who Didn’t Drink The Cool Aid once the adulation subsides.

The great gift of writing what you most want to write is that the voices of critics and fans alike are the buzzing of summer insects against the cello strum of the voice within you that says Yes when you know a work is done. Once you write what you most want to write, you understand that the only choice to make is whether to be happy or to be unhappy. Write what you most want to write and you will be happy. Try to reach happiness through the inevitable unhappiness of writing what do not want to write but what you think you must write, and you will find happiness is always one more story away. There are critics on every beach. You will only truly listen to them when their unhappiness with your work matches your own.

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