A Critic’s Case for Critics Who Are Actually Critical
In the spring of 1983, Esquire convened what it called a revenge symposium. The editors asked a group of well-known writers to “let go unbridled comments” on their harshest and least favorite critics. The results were spectacular.
Jim Harrison called his detractors “tweed fops” and “snack-food artists.” Roy Blount Jr. declared about Larry McMurtry, who panned one of his books: “I hear he is absurdly, egregiously — especially in a cowboy hat — short.” Erica Jong recalled that Paul Theroux, while reviewing her novel “Fear of Flying,” referred to her as a “mammoth pudenda.” (Actually he was referring to the novel’s main character.) She replied: “Since Mr. Theroux has no personal acquaintance with the organ in question, I cannot help but wonder whether some anxieties about his own anatomy were at the root (as it were) of his review.”
It hurts to be criticized, and there is exhilaration in firing back, sometimes literally. The novelist Richard Ford, after a dismissive review from Alice Hoffman in The New York Times Book Review in 1986, shot bullets through one of her novels and mailed the mutilated thing to her. “My wife shot it first,” he reportedly said. Years later he spat in public upon the novelist Colson Whitehead, who had harshly reviewed another of his books. Afterward Whitehead commented, “This wasn’t the first time some old coot had drooled on me, and it probably won’t be the last.”
Ford is old-school. Most of us, when confronted with painful words, can’t resort to firearms or loogies, as much as we’d enjoy it. Instead we stew. We struggle to be as chipper as the novelist Kingsley Amis, who commented that a bad review could ruin breakfast but should not ruin lunch. It probably helped that Amis drank at lunch.
We can learn from writers’ responses to unvarnished opinions. Above all we don’t wish to follow the example of May Sarton. When one of her novels was panned in The New York Times Book Review in the late 1970s, she essentially curled up into a fetal ball for months. She detailed this experience in an abysmal book titled, “Recovering: A Journal” (1980).
“I felt,” Sarton wrote, “like a deer shot down by hunters.” Paul Fussell, the historian and critic, pounced on this comment. “The deer does not,” he reminded her, “emerge from the privacy and silence of the woods, come to the edge, wag its antlers at the hunters and invite them to take some shots.”