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In Defense of Critics

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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6 Comment count
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Thanks for this

The minute I read this, Charles, I thought of your fellow Red Room author Victoria Zackheim's piece Review This! Your essay is almost a companion piece. I'm looking forward to reading what the authors here, some of whom have probably suffered through a less-than-stellar review or two, have to say.

Huntington Sharp, Red Room

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Great article Charles! I

Great article Charles!
I enjoy reading your material.
Keep it coming.
Dennis from SD

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Charles, you got me thinking...

Your point about critics being among the few dedicated readers is partially true. The amateur reader does not come with the baggage of having read a lot and studied it in depth; the critic tends to hold forth in messianic tones - this is worth a read..this is not worthy...and then there was light...

Indeed, one cannot brand them all but it is a job they are assigend to do. Often, there are deadlines to meet for the Books pages (as a journalist I know what that means!); there are times books are not read completely and only the blurb and certain portions marked out as important; excerpts provide a great respite for the lazy one.

Personally, I respect reader feedback. I have seen some take the trouble to even point out page numbers to me and what they thought I was saying and why they agreed/did not agree. Interestingly, one mainstream newspaper carried a review that was completely plagiarised from a reader's blog!

It is rare to find a critic who critiques rather than criticises, and I say this despite getting mostly 'un-nasty' reviews.

Rant over. I'd make a good critic...


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Know what you mean about

Know what you mean about deadline pressed reviewers. I had one review by a guy who had clearly not read the book. Obviously sat at his desk a tad flustered, grabbed the first thing that came to hand, read the blurb, glanced at the first page, then knocked out 500 words to fill a space. He was nice about it, though, so he escaped the dark hole and the worms. Thanks for the feedback.


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A sympathetic ear/eye

Charles, how could I not jump in and comment? (Huntington, thanks for the heads-up!) Several years ago I wrote a mostly negative review of a novel for the SF Chronicle and I'm still in a twist. Not that the book deserved more praise, but because I knew there was an author possibly waiting in fear for the review to appear. When she read it, did she push it away and discredit me as a reviewer...or did she rush into the bathroom and puke? I wrote another dozen reviews for newspapers and web sites, and then hung up my skates. (Or whatever reviewers hang up when they decide to walk away.) As a writer (who holds her breath/heartbeat/meal until the review is posted), I could not work both sides of that street.

All of this is to say...thanks for the essay!



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Thanks, Victoria. Loved the

Thanks, Victoria. Loved the wretched-reviews. But I have my doubts about you! You say "how could I not jump in and comment" . . . I think your Inner Critic is perhaps struggling to get out again! In fact, I'm not dogmatic about working only one side of the fence. However, it might be wise to only review books you can say something good about, even if there are criticisms made at the same time. I'll be posting a blog on a related matter in a few weeks.