A First-Timer Reveals How It Feels

Steve Almond

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.