A First-Timer Reveals How It Feels

Steve Almond

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.