There's a great story that legendary film producer Robert Evans tells about the first distribution of Robert Towne's "Chinatown" screenplay. The movie, as everyone knows, is an enormously complicated tale of corruption of body, soul, and spirit in 1930's Los Angeles. Long before the cameras rolled, the script went out for a weekend read by studio executives, agents, financiers, and other people critical to the project's approval. According to Evans, half the readers loved the script and half hated it, but none of them understood it. In both cases, opinion flowed from a desire not to be perceived as unhip. Those who said they loved the script saw virtue in its obscurity and wanted to be "in the know,", while those who hated it felt left out of the loop and wanted to punish Towne for making them feel stupid.
Nobody wants to feel stupid, least of all book reviewers. A critic's authority rests on the perception that he or she is, if not superior, then at least intellectually equal to the work being reviewed. This makes writing about all things obscure, occult, and arcane an extremely hazardous occupation. There are two common ways of presenting such material, and both risk the critic's most pointed barbs. You can do it in the breathless, gee whiz! style of a Dan Brown, in which case the reviewers dismiss you as simple-minded, or you can handle the esoteric from an insider's perspective, in which case they're likely to get good and pissed off and call you obtuse, pretentious, or worse.
I write about hidden things. Hidden things have always fascinated me. Locked rooms, diaries, double lives, cabals and conspiracies. I write about small, highly secretive groups of people who hold privileged information with potentially world-altering implications. It's taken me three books to figure out that if you're going to write about secret societies, you are obliged to let the reader in on the secret password. This goes double for reviewers. They have to be invited to the party, or they're not going to have anything nice to say about the hors d'oeuvres. They will treat you as we treat the bratty kid who chants, "I know something you don't know!" Because the whole point of my books is to share secrets without spoiling their mystery, this is something of a tightrope walk for me. If you shine too much light on numinous things, they have a tendency to evaporate.
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