“Has anybody ever seen a drama critic in the daytime? Of course not. They come out after dark, up to no good.”
PG Wodehouse said that. I think it would be fair to say that authors have an equivocal relationship with critics. We court them assiduously, as long as they give us good review.
I think the problem was expressed most succinctly by Noel Coward: “I love criticism just so long as it’s unqualified praise.”
“If you show someone something you’ve written,’ David Mitchell says, ‘you give them a sharpened stake, lie down in your coffin, and say, ‘When you’re ready’.”
But that’s not really how it is. For instance, there’s many book bloggers out there, some of them read this blog, and they do a great job of reading and reviewing books and they never go out of their way to hurt anyone. Where would we be without them?
Most never even give a bad review – they just don’t review a book they don’t like, rather than hammer in that dreaded stake.
So why do we all get our shorts in a bunch?
Because every now and then there’s this: Ginger Calem wrote a great post this week highlighting the problem.
She wrote it in response to a review in the New York Observer by a guy called Rex Reed on a movie called ‘Identity Thief.’ Review? It was mostly a venomous attack on actress Melissa McCarthy using terms like “creep”, “hippo” and “tractor-sized.”
Now this is not criticism, is it? It’s not thoughtful, it’s not clever, it’s certainly not funny. It’s just vile. And yet, it’s nothing new. Even Byron had a piece of it.
Two hundred years ago, he had this to say about a fellow poet: “Here is Johnny Keats’ piss-a-bed poetry … no more Keats, I entreat. Flay him alive! If some of you don’t I must skin him myself: there is no bearing the drivelling idiotism of the Man-kin.”
I hope that makes you all feel better, about criticism if not about Byron. He was talking about Keats.
WH Auden ratcheted it up to the next level: “I don’t think Robert Browning was very good in bed. His wife probably didn’t care for him very much. He snored and had fantasies about twelve-year-old girls.”
Seems a bit harsh; poor Browning only wrote poetry, for God’s sake, he didn’t steal Auden’s credit cards and burn down his house. He didn’t invade Poland.
“I haven’t any right to criticize books,” Mark Twain once said, and I would have applauded if he’d stopped right there. But he wasn’t quite finished: “I don’t do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticize Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”
Really? It was only a book about English social mores; he could have just given it back to the library.
But even that wouldn’t have pleased him: “Just the omission of Jane Austen’s books alone would make a fairly good library out of a library that hadn’t a book in it.”
Some authors are more scathing than any professional critic. Like Truman Capote’s summary of Jack Kerouac: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”
Evelyn Waugh was worse: “I am reading Proust for the first time. Very poor stuff. I think he was mentally defective.”
And Mary McCarthy really didn’t like Lillian Hellman: “Every word she writes is a lie, including the ands and the the’s.”
What is this urge to humiliate, publicly? Is it jealousy? Is it frustration with our own life? Why would this Reed guy pour such venom on a popular actress?
Someone once said that when we judge or criticize another person, it says nothing about that person; it merely says something about our own need to be critical.
The good reviewers don’t do this; Roger Ebert has made his career as the film critic at the Chicago Sun-Times and he never vilifies. In fact I read his stuff to learn more about story; see this excellent review he once did of Someone to Watch Over Me, where he identifies the real story that the writer missed.
He didn’t like ‘Identity Thief’ much either. But this is how a good critic analyzes WHY a movie sucks.
No tractors or creeps in there. Just very intelligent reviewing. Rex, read and learn.
I was once at a writer’s festival and joined some publishing people for coffee. One of the guys got up and left soon after I arrived. ‘Did you know who that was?’ an editor said. ‘That was the guy who gave you that crappy review in the Courier Mail.’
He had the guts to write it. Just not the balls to be there when I met him face to face.
If we publish, we invite criticism. If we appear on stage or in a movie – the same. But valid criticism and abuse are not the same thing.
I’ve not seen ‘Identity Thief.’ I’m not a fan or relative of Ms McCarthy. But I know now not to read the New York Observer. Is this the best they can do for reviewers?
Last words to Kurt Vonnegut: “Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.”
Mr Reed, my money’s on the hot fudge sundae.
See HAREM, now on Slideshare!!
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