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A First-Timer Reveals How It Feels

Steve Almond

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.

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