Last April (the 22nd, to be exact), I received an advance copy of the New York Times review of my debut story collection. The piece, which appeared in the Sunday Book Review, began as follows: “There’s a postadolescent period many of us would rather forget: that summer or decade when we have no idea what we’re doing. Days are measured in beer, TV and dead-end jobs. It is a dull time to live through, and duller still to read about. “Which doesn't stop young writers from writing about it.”
The critic, Claire Dederer, went on to characterize my book as a “mopey, navel-gazing collection” full of “confused laddies.”
You can include me in that list of laddies, actually, because none of the characters in my book—which include a 70-year-old widower, a 33-year-old female reporter, a middle-aged librarian, and a pair of gay soldiers—drink beer or watch TV or have dead-end jobs. None of them mope or navel-gaze. What they do, and quite vigorously, is have sex and suffer heartbreak.
My friends and relatives who read this review were quick to remind me that I was lucky to get reviewed in the Times at all, that there is no such thing as bad press, that the review did say some nice things. In short, they carted out all available bromides, none of which did squat to soothe my wounded heart.
I have since calmed down considerably. But I would still rank getting a bad review as the worst, most bruising part of putting a book into the world—with no close second.
I know how terribly unfashionable this sounds. Years from now, no doubt, I’ll look back upon this confession and wince. To admit that reviews matter is considered poor form among writers. We're supposed to rise above the fray, let our words be our sole defense, blah blah blah. But that's how I feel. And I know, from speaking to dozens of other writers, that most of them feel the same way, though they struggle not to let this show. And, what's more—we’ve got every right to feel this way.
While writers may be habituated to rejection—I happen to eat the stuff for breakfast—a nasty review isn’t just a rejection of your work. It’s a public repudiation. You open the paper (perhaps in your very own town) to find that someone, some stranger, has deemed your work lousy. Your mother reads this. She weeps. Quietly. To herself. And then she calls you and says, “…Well, honey, the review did say some nice things.”
There's no appeals process. No way to defend yourself in the court of public opinion, nor to question the critic’s qualifications. Whatever they say, you eat. Period.
Of course, if you happen to be named Clancy or King, or even Updike, a bad review doesn’t matter so much, because you've already got an established audience. But for most writers, the plain cold fact is that critics determine how your work is regarded by most of the world. Consider the math: Tens of thousands of people read the reviews in major newspapers. Only a fraction of that number ever read the books being reviewed.
If anything, writers suffer bad reviews more deeply than other artists. We can’t blame the director of photography for ruining our vision, or the producer for mixing the guitars all wrong. Nor can we expect a surge in album sales or a huge weekend gross to rescue us.
As bitter as I may sound (and I’m aware that I'm verging on bitter here), I should make clear that I am not questioning the critical mission. I teach a college course in which I stress, over and over, that criticism is essential to the production of art. Indeed, the best critics are motivated by a profound love of art. They hold us to a higher standard of achievement by articulating the ways in which we have fallen down on the job.
I was incredibly grateful to the critics who took my work this seriously. One reviewer noted that my emphasis on romantic woe became wearying after a time. Another pointed out my tendency to become didactic at the end of the stories. Dederer herself suggested that I wrote best about sex when I embedded it in a specific context. I thought these were all terrific points.
But, of the 50 or so reviews I received, only a handful offered this kind of pointed critique. Most of the rest were simply too short to do anything more than provide a pithy opening, a little plot summary, a quote or two, and an incisive final graph.
In defense of these critics, much of the problem is institutional. The standard book review these days runs about 400 words. Critics are often asked to write under intense time pressure, and for too little money.
There are also the demands of the market to consider, meaning that reviewers must often try to come up with some catchy angle.
Taylor Antrim, for instance, writing for the Village Voice Literary Supplement, portrayed me as one of a posse of “Young, Gifted, & Workshopped” writers who had committed the unpardonable sin of having attended an MFA program.
I e-mailed Antrim to thank him for the piece, but also noted that I would have liked to have seen him discuss my writing without regard to my educational background.
He replied: “Of course you’re right. I’m not entirely comfortable with the MFA angle to the piece, though that’s unfortunately the hook that grabs an editor at the VLS for a freelance piece. As in ‘Yeah, yeah, MFA—that’s zeitgeisty and controversial! Do that!’”
I cannot express how sad I found this note. Not just Antrim’s softheaded pandering, but the idea that books, in and of themselves, are unworthy of critical attention without a hook. There are, of course, still venues that run book reviews without a hook. But they’ve become the exception, at this point, not the rule. Even those critics whose sole focus was ostensibly my book were often writing about something else: themselves.
R.V. Scheide, who wrote a review for a weekly paper in Sacramento, is a pointed example. What struck me as most peculiar about this review was the last line: “One walks away from My Life in Heavy Metal thinking Steve Almond is not a happy man.”
Clearly, Scheide had confused me (the author) with my characters. It’s a common mistake amongst my students. But then, they’re newcomers to fiction—not critics.
I met Scheide before my reading in Sacramento. It took him about five minutes of sheepish mumbling before he admitted, without prompting, that he had recently gone through a divorce and that he was still pretty bummed out. “I guess I was maybe writing about myself,” he said.
Yeah, I guess.
The best critics—the most self-aware, I should say—acknowledge the ways in which a particular book has affected them. But there are plenty, I'm sad to report, who just sort of blast away.
I remember this from my own days as a music critic. My rule of thumb back then was simple: Shoot first, ask questions later. It shocks me now to think of all the authority I was given—I, who had never played an instrument seriously, who knew next to nothing about music. I had been handed a license without having had to take a single exam.
But then, this is one of the perverse pleasures of being a critic: the right to sit in judgment without ever having to subject oneself to critical review.
And it's not just a matter of throwing around opinions. No, critics can write just about anything without being subjected to the scrutiny of fact-checkers or editors. Perhaps the strangest example I encountered involved a critic named Ann M. Bauer. Bauer objected to—among other things—the fact that one of my female characters ejaculated a considerable amount of fluid during sex. This she called a "woefully inaccurate rendering of the female anatomy.”
I won’t dwell on this point, except to say that it aptly demonstrates a danger of sloppy criticism: Opinions are asserted as facts. As it happens, certain women do ejaculate in this way, a fact substantiated by at least two letters to the editor from women.
Often, in dealing with particularly nasty reviews, I couldn’t help but think of the short story “Bullet in the Brain” by Tobias Wolff, which captures the tragedy of being a professional critic. “Anders did not remember when he began to regard the heap of books on his desk with boredom and dread,” Wolff writes, “or when he grew angry at writers for writing them.”
The best reviews I received, fittingly, came from fellow fiction writers. They were the ones who focused most sharply on the emotional lives of my characters, who seemed to grasp that I was writing about sex as a means of exploring heartbreak. There was also a measure of respect in these reviews, which I attribute to the fact that writers realize how hard it is to produce a publishable manuscript.
But I may have lucked out on this front. Because relatively recently, we’ve been treated to several hatchet jobs perpetrated by established writers. Colson Whitehead’s defrocking of Richard Ford’s new story collection in the New York Times Book Review comes to mind, as does Dale Peck’s 5,500-word rant against Rick Moody in the New Republic.
Editors run these pieces, in part, because they believe them to have literary merit. But there is a second, more obvious motive: to generate buzz. And this they do. In the days after these pieces appeared, half a dozen friends urged me to read them. It was like being back on the playground when that sudden magical murmur begins: Fight! Fight! I felt dragged toward the brawl by my own worst impulses.
Writers have every right to criticize other writers, of course; I don’t mean to suggest that we should all join hands and sing “Kumbaya.” But I’m still not sure what purpose is served by the tone of these assaults. Peck's piece is particularly vicious. He stops just short of calling Moody an idiot—and that effort seems to pain him.
I can understand Peck’s basic argument (because he makes it over and over): Moody’s prose is imprecise and his ideas are murky. I can even commend his passion as a critic. But is it really necessary to tear down another writer in order to defend your own aesthetic? Does disapproval require such flamboyant malice?
The world of letters is already under assault, after all, from TV, movies, the Internet, from the drone and shine of those media intended to replace people's internal lives with frantic buy messages. It seems to me essential that writers work to promote their common goal, which is the articulation of what it means to be human. This is not the historical moment to broadcast your disgust with another writer’s prose.
But okay, even if we go along with the standard rationalization—that Ford and Moody are big names, that consumers should know what they’re getting before they plunk down their cash—how does one explain the critics who choose to savage books by obscure writers, books (in other words) that nobody is going to buy anyway? Why knock down a writer who has yet to rise into the public eye?
Why not, instead, find a book that the critic can champion?
I'm sure this sounds terribly naïve. But that’s why I became an artist: I wanted permission to sound naïve and hopeful.
So I’m going to pretend, just for the moment, that there are a few critics out there listening to this mawkish little jeremiad. To them, let me say the following: Please resist the impulse to dole our your next righteous mugging. Find, instead—just this once—a piece of art that you love, that speaks to your heart, and write a review that helps carve out a place in the world for it.
Steve Almond is the author of My Life in Heavy Metal (Grove Press, 2002), which will be published in paperback this month.