What To Do When You Suck Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2013-02-24 15:00:00 No comments

Dwight Macdonald once again:

It is difficult for American reviewers to resist a long, ambitious novel; they are betrayed by the American admiration of size and scope, also by the American sense of good fellowship; they find it hard to say to the author, after all his work: "Sorry, but it's terrible."

Authors who are told their work stinks have a few stock reactions. They can ignore the advice -- hey, who reads their own criticism anyway?; they can call out the critic in public, as a few writers have been wont to do (although sometimes with results that reflect badly on the author's manners); or they can dig under the criticism and look for the most relevant kernel of truth in it.

Most people, given their distaste for criticism aimed at them by strangers, never bother with #3.

Me included -- not least of all because I spend so much time taking my own work apart and putting it back together that by the time it passes into someone else's hands, I'm not inclined to do that work even one more time. I know, without having to think too deeply about it, that there are most likely many things wrong with any book I have written, or will write, and that they are only because I am one person in one place at any one time. The very fact of your "conditioned existence" (as Buddhism puts it) implies error and shortcomings.

Finding the line between a) grace -- acceptance of all of the above as ineveitable and natural, and maybe even bountiful -- and b) striving to self-transcend is like trying to figure out how to deal with an unruly friend. You like your friend, for reasons that are not always visible to everyone around you -- maybe not even visible to people who spend a fair slice of their time with both you and that friend. You hate having to explain to other people why you would choose to spend time in their company when other people see only something they find a nuisance. You can't see through their eyes, and they are deprived of the same gift, so you learn instead to arrange things so that he's not around when the people with particularly sensitive nerves come calling.

If a critic I respected and admired told me one of my books was no good, I would listen to him. Not because I believed his advice would be the word of the Lord, but because he might well have a point. Then again, he might not, and he may simply have had one of the lapses of taste that all critics have given that they, too, are carbon-based like the rest of us. And again, I suspect the number of critics I would take that seriously would number in the single digits -- not because most of them are idiots (well, okay, it is far too easy for anyone to call themselves such a thing and not earn the label), but because the trust simply hasn't been earned.

Most every writer I know has said something like "I'm not in this to please critics, I'm in this to please myself and my audience, in that order." I agree with that sentiment up to the point it makes you ignore good advice.

Tags: Dwight Macdonald criticism writing