By Charles Davis
Rarely is anyone so intimately exposed and emotionally vulnerable as when they spawn a novel. Even the mildest criticism can seem like a vicious, unprovoked attack if you are prepared to overlook the fact that nobody asked you to foist your precious insights upon an unsuspecting world. Sometimes real damage is done. To the eternal shame of his contemporaries, Herman Melville's literary career was effectively ended when critics lambasted Moby-Dick.
Playwright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton once said, "Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamppost what it feels about dogs," instantly earning himself a spot in every compendium of literary quotes. One-liners aren't a writer's only weapon, though. John Updike's ego was so nettled by bad reviews that, in Bech At Bay, he creates a character who sets about killing off his critics. It might seem a tad intemperate, but you can understand it in a way.
Of course, book reviewers are often book writers, too, rendering the critic-writer divide as misleading as most dichotomies. Nonetheless, writing and reviewing are still distinct modes of being that, maintained concurrently, inculcate low-grade schizophrenia. It's just as well to decide which side of the fence you want to work; otherwise, you'll be forever hopping back and forth, probably snagging yourself on the pointy tips of the pickets.
I've had some filthy reviews in my time. Occasionally, I've felt the filthy reviews were more just than the good ones, but on the whole I've managed to persuade myself-it wasn't always easy, but I persevered-that my laudatory critics are very fine people of unparalleled perspicacity, while my critical critics are sadly deranged individuals who deserve to be banged up in a dungeon and fed finely minced worms for the rest of their grotesquely unnatural lives. Not that I'm prejudiced or anything.
Unfortunately, I'm in no position to criticize critics because I believe that, apart from dedicated amateur readers, they are the best people to talk about books. Writers hopefully know how to write, know what they want to say, and work out a way of saying it well. After that they ought to withdraw into a dignified silence because most of them are pretty clueless when it comes to telling you what their own books are about. Sadly, nowadays every writer is supposed to be a public-relations wizard. Baffles me. If I could describe it in a few pithy sentences, I wouldn't have bothered to write a book about it in the first place. Moreover, I'm convinced that it is only in the recreative, collaborative act of reading that a book comes into being and reveals what is truly being communicated. Getting a writer to talk about their books is about as useful as asking a pig farmer to describe the taste of bacon.
Thank God, then, that there are people who are willing to read books and write about them. They help other readers pick out the gems from the bewildering muddle of nonbooks, unbooks, antibooks, debooks, and disbooks that are published every week. As papers close or shrink their books pages, critics are an endangered species. Perhaps in the long term that will be to the good, as so-called "ordinary" readers supplant professional reviewers on sites like Red Room, Amazon, and LibraryThing. In the meantime, let us praise those harried souls who plow through a dozen books a week in a desperate attempt to make a living by telling others what they liked and didn't like. And if they're rude about us, we'll lock ‘em up in the dungeon.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got to mince some worms.
–Charles Davis is the author of the novels Walk On, Bright Boy (nominated for the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award) and Walking The Dog. He has published several nonfiction walking guides, the newest of which, GR221: Mallorca's "Dry Stone Way," will be published by this month by Discovery Walking Guides.
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Causes Charles Davis Supports
Oxfam, Amnesty International, Greenpeace