Are authors really too nice?
Like it or not, authors have to live with other authors. Some may prefer otherwise, and do their best to keep their distance, but most of us end up spending a fair amount of time—in person, in print, and online—interacting with our fellow writers. You can check it up to camaraderie, careerism, or the simple sense that there’s no one else with whom we can talk about the things that matter most to us, as well as the knowledge that, for better or worse, we’re going to be collaborating and competing with these people for a long time. As a result, most of us generally avoid criticizing one another’s work, at least in public. Which isn’t to say that writers aren’t neurotic, needy, petty people—most of us certainly are. But while we may secretly begrudge a friend’s success or agree that this year’s big book is a big bore, we generally keep these opinions to ourselves or share them only in private. As a result, only a handful of major novelists—Updike, Vidal, maybe a few others—have also been major critics. It isn’t for lack of intelligence; it’s more out of prudence or caution.
That’s why I don’t agree with Dwight Garner’s recent assertion that Twitter has somehow made writers less willing to criticize one another in public. Most writers have long since concluded, and rightly so, that it isn’t worth the headache. At best, we tend to reserve our critical arrows for those unlikely to be hurt by what we say, or even to read it at all, which is the real reason why the dead, the famous, and the canonized are such tempting targets. But when it comes to writers on our own level, there’s little to gain and much to lose by criticizing them in print. This isn’t omerta, or a gentlemen’s agreement, but a modus vivendi that avoids problems down the line. Even Norman Mailer, no stranger to conflict, came to the same conclusion. Fifty years ago, in his essay “Some Children of the Goddess,” he took potshots at contemporaries like Styron, Salinger, and Roth, and some never forgave him for it. Ever since, he avoided criticizing his peers, or lobbed his missiles at more resilient targets like Tom Wolfe. And if Mailer, of all people, decided that being a critic was more trouble that it was worth, I can’t blame other writers for concluding the same thing.
And yet it’s also a genuine loss. Dave Eggers isn’t wrong when he advises us not to criticize a novel until we’ve written one, or a movie until we’ve made one. There’s no question that we’d avoid a lot of the nonsense written about movies and books—like the idea, for instance, that a director is the sole author of a film, despite all evidence to the contrary—if more criticism were written by people with experience in the creative field in question. As someone who has done a bit of freelancing myself, I can say that while critics can be driven by ambitions and impulses of their own, these are qualitatively different from the process that underlies the creation of any extended, original work of art. Ideally, then, a literary critic would know something about how a novel is put together, with all the compromises, accidents, and beartraps involved—and there’s no one more qualified to do this than working novelists themselves. But for all the reasons I’ve listed above, there are good reasons why most writers prefer to keep out of it, especially when it comes to the contemporaries about whom they know the most.
In short, the people best equipped to write intelligently about contemporary literature—the writers themselves—have more than enough reason to stand down, and it isn’t necessarily realistic or fair to expect otherwise. Consequently, our best literary critics have often been those with some experience of creative work who have since thrown in their lot on the critical side, which is how we end up with valuable voices like Edmund Wilson or James Wood, who have written novels of their own but found their true calling elsewhere. This isn’t a perfect solution, but it’s a pretty good one, and I’d much rather be reviewed by a critic who at least knew what writing a publishable novel was like. In the end, though, this will always be an issue for literary criticism, which differs from all other fields in that critics and their subjects use the same tools and draw on the same pool of talent. It makes objectivity, bravery, and expertise in a critic all the more precious. And if you want to know what a writer really thinks of his peers—well, just corner him at a party, and believe me, you’ll get an earful.