SO THEN. WHAT DO WE ALL THINK ABOUT CRITICS?

“Has anybody ever seen a drama critic in the daytime? Of course not. They come out after dark, up to no good.”

critics, Melissa McCarthy, Roger Ebert

Noel Coward
photo: Allan Warren

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 critics, Melissa McCarthy, Roger Eberton 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.

critics, Melissa McCarthy, Roger EbertWH 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.

photo: hhhtp://www.wyrdlight.com Antony McCallum

photo: hhhtp://www.wyrdlight.com Antony McCallum
Jane Austen’s grave.
That shinbone’s in there somewhere!

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.

critics, Melissa McCarthy, Roger Ebert

http://www.Jon Hurd flickr.com people 56685562@N00

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. 

Jon Hurd flickr.com people 56685562@N00

where’s this hot fudge sundae that needs sorting out?

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.

Historical Fiction, Colin Falconer, HaremSee HAREM, now on Slideshare!!

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COLIN FALCONER

About colinfalconer

author of bestselling historical novels like Anastasia, When We Were Gods, Aztec and Harem. My books have been published in the UK, US and ANZ and translated into seventeen languages.
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16 Responses to SO THEN. WHAT DO WE ALL THINK ABOUT CRITICS?

  1. prudencemacleod says:

    Hey Colin, great post. I often wonder about the folks who give the bitter one star reviews, and I’ve had my fair share. One critic one starred most of my books. I often wonder why she kept buying them, but she did, bless her golden heart.

    • As that brilliant wit Anonymous says in the post – criticism often says more about the person that it does about whatever it is they’re criticizing – I’ve noticed that when I’m happy within myself and with life I can’t be critical of anyone or anything …

  2. gingercalem says:

    Bravo!! I love that you wrote about this topic and with much more aplomb than I. You didn’t even call anyone an ass. *grin* (Thank you very much for the shout out!)

    What struck me as interesting was this bit from Twain, “Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice, …” Um, why does he keep reading it if it tortures him so?

    Your point –> But valid criticism and abuse are not the same thing. RIGHT ON!

    I’m with you regarding Rex Reed. I’m betting on the hot fudge sundae! Great post!!

    • I don’t think I said anything better than you, Ginger, I just wanted to add my voice to the huge roar that has been shouting him down this week. As for Mark Twain – he may possibly have had his tongue in his cheek – which is better than having your head up your ass like Rex – there, I said it!

  3. Julia Robb says:

    Brave blog, Colin. It takes guts to speak out. As an added comment (not directly related to what you wrote), I’d say this is also the age of attempted censorship. One woman who read ABOUT my newest book asked how I dared write critically about a priest, a man of God. And I’m perfectly sure she did not read the book.

    • Nothing wrong with criticism or opinion in my book, Julia – as I said about Roger Ebert, it’s all in how it’s done. And as you’ve brought up censorship, that’s exactly the post I have scheduled for tomorrow …

  4. Emma says:

    Good post. Old school writers slinging insults at others in their field actually made me smile. We would be lucky to have a famous writer made a disparaging remark about one of our books – it might help drive up sales :)

  5. Fantastic post, Colin! One of my favorites quotes: “Critics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it’s done, they’ve seen it done every day, but they’re unable to do it themselves.” ~Brendan Behan

    • It’s a good quote Debra – and I do think it applies to critics who resort to schoolyard insults as Rex did here. But as I pointed out with guys like Mr Ebert, he does have the gift for showing how something could be done better. He rarely criticizes without showing the writer or director where they missed the point. But only good reviewers can do that.

  6. Thank you for jumping to Melissa McCarthy’s defense. I’ve only seen her in the Gilmore Girls, but I thought she was a good actress. Maybe not Meryl Streep good, but she’s okay. And she seems like a really nice person, which is more than anyone can ever say about Rex Reed.

    My theory on people like him has always been that somewhere, deep inside, they feel like they’re lacking. And in order to feel like they have even a little self-worth, they have to tear others down. The Rex Reed’s of this world shouldn’t bother anyone. The only thing that bugs me is that there’s always someone who will pay them…and pay them well…to spew their ugly, hateful, hurtful garbage in public forums that we should be able to rely on as reputable. All the New York Observer manages to do, when they allow crap like this, is to drag their reputations to the level of our national trash magazines.

    As for Mr. Twain, I’m going to assume that since he prefaced his insults with ‘Every time I read…’ that it was said tongue-in-cheek, and likely to annoy someone. I have an uncle like that, and all I can do is laugh every time he opens his mouth…because you know he usually means opposite of what he says. He’s just trying to see who he can rile up. :)

    • I’m sure Ms McCarthy won’t lose any sleep over him, Kristy, but I don’t think anyone should have to put up with that kind of personal abuse. It’s only a movie for God’s sake. And yes, I agree with you about Mr Twain – I believe he was just being mischievous. And I included some of those other writers because they made me laugh. Anyway guys like Jack Kerouac, for example, gave as good as they got!

  7. Hi Colin! *waves* I hope you’re all settled in your new digs!
    Rex Reed. He’s been around for a long time. Actually, I thought he was dead. lol. And of course there is no comparison between Mr. Reed and Roger Ebert. Mr. Ebert exudes a certain element of class that makes his comments more palatable. I believe there is such a thing a constructive criticism. And it’s a good thing. It’s how we learn to be better at whatever we do. But there is no need to belittle someone in the process. That only serves to elevate the person who is giving the criticism. And in reality, they are the ones who have the problem. :)

    • I thought Rex was retired, and he should now. He’s obviously far too tired and jaded to do a good job. I agree with what you say here Karen wholeheartedly. And yes, I’m settling in … I love it here!

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