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Friday, June 08, 2007

 

It was a bad idea then, it's a bad idea now

A friend put a book by Marie Corelli into my hands the other day, and it's provided me with a passage that seems to me the absolute template example of why you shouldn't try to answer your critics.


Marie Corelli (a pen name intended to imply a family connection between her and the composer Arcangelo Corelli) was an extremely successful and profoundly eccentric author of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, whose improving works met with popular acclaim and critical contempt. It's hard to blame the critics, as she was a genuine crank, convinced she was a genius comparable to Shakespeare and a moral examplar second to none; among other things, she wrote a book that attempted to rewrite the gospels and prove Judas Iscariot had a sister called Judith, and ended her days sailing about Stratford-upon-Avon in a gondola setting herself up as a Shakespearian authority/successor. She was also prone to using fiction to proselytise her opinons as to such evils as the library system, feminism and modern thought, with its 'lax morals and prurient literature'. She did tell a good story, if you can swallow her views. However, it is not of her books but of her reaction to reviews that I wish to speak today.

After several pannings, she decided to take matters into her own hands. Refusing to allow critics to get review copies unless they paid for them, she wrote a novel called The Sorrows of Satan, in which Lucio (the Devil) is condemned to be exiled from heaven until all human beings can resist him. Well, obviously nobody can, except for Jesus, and one other person: a writer called (note the intials) Mavis Claire.

Mavis Claire is a genius whose novels are given cruel and nasty reviews by critics who are generally failed writers motivated by profound envy of her talent. Our narrator is a reviewer, and says as much himself; as Corelli remarks: 'Common sense points out the fact that the novelist "reader" who has a place to maintain for himself in literature would naturally rather encourage work that is likely to prove ephemeral, than that which might possibly take a higher footing than his own.' (The idea of both reading and writing because you love the higher good that is literature, and wish to serve it and better your understanding by daily contact with it, does not seem to have occurred to her. But unpleasant people often assume others are motivated by the same malice as themselves.)

These reviews obviously don't trouble Mavis. Of course they don't. She really doesn't care; she laughs. Merrily. In fact, they trouble her so little that she makes a positive fetish of them. I'm about to quote a pretty long passage (but still slightly abbreviated, as I realise your patience may not be infinite), to stand as an out-of-copyright, author-too-dead-to-mind-I'm-using-her-as-an-example demonstration of a basic rule of writing:


If you don't like your reviews, keep it zipped. You'll only make yourself look bad trying to get the last word.

(I should possibly say, in case anyone is wondering, that I'm not posting this piece in response to any particular reviews of my own; Bareback came out last year and hasn't had any professional reviews in a while. Also because I'm still sick and this is a piece I copy-typed a while ago. But in the interests of full disclosure, because I'm an honest little toaster: yes, it had reviews; most of them were positive, a couple were negative, which is never enjoyable but I'm a big girl and reviewers have a right to their own opinions. This is the normal position of most writers.) The reason why it's worth reading Corelli's piece is that it's one of the best examples I've ever seen of how an attempt to get the last word with reviewers can have, let's say, a different effect from the one you were intending. Lucio and our narrator are shown by the graceful Mavis into her garden:





Passing under an arching grove of budding syringas, we presently came to an open courtyard paved with blue and white tiles, having in its centre a picturesque dovecote built in the form of a Chinese pagoda. Here pausing, Mavis clapped her hands. A cloud of doves, white, grey, brown, and opalescent answered the summons, circling round and round her head, and flying down in excited groups at her feet.


'Here are my reviewers!' she said laughing - 'Are they not pretty creatures? The ones I know best are named after their respective journals - there are plenty of anonymous ones of course, who flock in with the rest. Here, for instance, is the "Saturday Review"' - and she picked up a strutting bird with coral-tinted feet, who seemed to rather like the attention shown to him - 'He fights with all his companions and drives them away from the food whenever he can. He is a quarrelsome creature!' - and here she stroked the bird's head - 'You never know how to please him - he takes offence at corn sometimes and will only eat peas, or vice versa. He quite deserves his name - go away, old boy!' and she flung the pigeon up in the air and watching it soaring up and down - 'He is such a comical old grumbler! There is the "Speaker"' - and she pointed to a fat fussy fantail - 'he struts very well, and fancies he's important, you know, but he isn't ... Whenever I get a bad review I name a pigeon - it amuses me. That draggle-tailed one there with the muddy feet is the "Sketch" - he is not at all a well-bred bird I must tell you! - that smart-looking dove with the purple breast is the "Graphic", and that bland old grey thing is the "ILN", short for "Illustrated London News". Those three white ones are respectively "Daily Telegraph", "Morning Post", and "Standard". Now see them all!' and taking a covered basket from a corner she began to scatter corn and peas and various grains in lavish quantities all over the court. For a moment we could scarcely see the sky, so thickly the birds flocked together, struggling, fighting, swooping downwards, and soaring upwards - but the winged confusion soon gave place to something like order when they were all on the ground and busy, selecting their favourite foods from the different sorts provided for their choice.


'You are indeed a sweet-natured philosopher' - said Lucio smiling, 'if you can symbolize your adverse reviewers by a flock of doves!'


She laughed merrily.


'Well, it is a remedy against all irritation' - she returned; 'I used to worry a good deal over my work, and wonder why it was that the press people were so unnecessarily hard upon me, when they showed so much leniency and encouragement to far worse writers - but after a little serious consideration, finding that critical opinion carried no sort of conviction whatever to the public, I determined to trouble no more about it - except in the way of doves!'


'In the way of doves, you feed your reviewers' - I observed.


'Exactly! And I suppose I help to feed them even as women and men' she said - 'They get something from their editors for "slashing" my work - and they probably make a little more out of selling their "review copies". So you see the dove-emblem holds good throughout. But you have not seen the "Athenaeum" - oh, you must see him!'


With laughter still lurking in her blue eyes, she took us out of the pigeon-court, and led the way round to a sequestered and shady corner of the garden, where, in a large aviary cage fitted up for its special convenience, sat a solemn white owl. The instant it perceived us, it became angry, and ruffling up its downy feathers, rolled its glistening yellow eyes vindictively and opened its beak. Two smaller owls sat in the background, pressed close together - one grey, the other brown.'


'Cross old boy!' said Mavis, addressing the spiteful-looking creature in the sweetest of accents - 'Haven't you found any mice to kill today? Oh, what wicked eyes! - what a snappy mouth!' Then turning to us, she went on - 'Isn't he a lovely owl? Doesn't he look wise? - but as a matter of fact, he's just as stupid as ever can be. That is why I call him the "Athanaeum"! He looks so profound, you'd fancy he knows everything, but he really thinks of nothing but killing mice all the time, - which limits his intelligence considerably!'


Lucio laughed heartily, and so did I - she looked so mischievous and merry....


[She shows them into the house and they examine her charming workroom for a while.]


'Miss Clare', I said, now speaking with unaffected sincerity - 'I assure you, on my honour, I am very sorry I wrote that article against you. If I had only known you as you are -'

'Oh, that should make no difference to a critic!' she answered merrily.


'It would have made a great difference to me' - I declared; 'You are so unlike the objectionable "literary woman"'...

'I am very pleased to hear that,' she said simply - 'I am always glad when I succeed in winning somebody's approval and liking.'


'Does not everyone approve and admire you?' asked Lucio.


'Oh no! By no means! The "Saturday" says I only win the applause of shop-girls!' and she laughed - 'Poor old "Saturday"! - the writers on its staff are so jealous of any successful author. I told the Prince of Wales what it said the other day, and he was very much amused.'


'You know the Prince?' I asked, in a little surprise.


'Well, it would be more correct to say that he knows me,' she replied - 'He has been very amiable in taking some little interest in my books. He knows a good deal about literature too - much more than people give him credit for. He has been here more than once - and has seen me feed my reviewers - the pigeons, you know! He rather enjoyed the fun I think!'

And this was all the result of the 'slating' the press gave to Mavis Clare! Simply that she named her doves after her critics, and fed them in the presence of whatever royal or distinguished visitors she might have (and I afterwards learned that she had many) amid, no doubt, much laughter from those who saw the 'Spectator'-pigeon fighting for grains of corn, or the 'Saturday Review'-pigeon quarrelling over peas! Evidently no reviewer, spiteful or otherwise, could affect the vivacious nature of such a mischievous elf as she was.







Well, you get the idea. Corelli's piece shows something that she didn't intend: by the very act of announcing you don't care about your reviews, you show that you do. Otherwise, why bother to memorialise them and tell every passing visitor just how little you care? Clearly it's novelist's logic, arguing by analogy: saying that the bird named after a paper is stupid (and a fictional bird at that) proves absolutely nothing about the actual paper, but by such devices you can suggest a magic link - which is pretty dishonest. But aside from the dishonesty, there's also something quite disturbing there: while Mavis laughs gaily and flaunts her charitable forgiveness, it's actually a profoundly spiteful thing to do. Somebody writes you a bad review. (Possibly because they genuinely didn't like your book and felt they had a moral duty to tell the truth, but Corelli doesn't consider this option.) So what do you do? Name a bird after them, show that bird to all your visitors and dwell at great length on how unimportant the bird is. Which is to say, you take the opportunity to insult them in effigy, daily, for years, as long as the bird lives - and quite possibly you replace that bird when it dies so you can carry on insulting them, who knows? Leaving aside the cuteness of the doves and the apparently magical way they take after the papers as Corelli sees them, it's no different from making dummies of the reviewers and putting them all in dunce caps.


There are certain things one shouldn't do in public: sneer at the people who give you bad reviews, try to get a clever last word over them and flaunt just how incredibly little you care about their opinions. Mary Sue threatens, for one thing (Corelli apparently denied that Mavis Clare was a self-portrait, but I'm not sure who she thought she was kidding); your own prejudices and blind spots show through when you try to guess why other people act as they do. And joking when upset is like joking when drunk: you're never as funny as you think you are.

Most importantly, it's dishonourable. Fiction is a sacred trust: it's one of the most intimate ways one mind can speak to another, sometimes speaking down centuries of time, across language barriers and culture clashes, always speaking to the best of our ability of what it is to be human. That is incredibly important. We all have our limitations of talent and wisdom, but if we're going to presume to write, we have to be as honest as we can, otherwise we're misusing something that's essential to our sense of humanity. Fiction is for telling the truth, not for telling yourself gratifying lies, and right at the bottom of the list of things you should do is using fiction to settle scores. It's using a beautiful painting to break your neighbour's windows.


If you ever feel the urge to send up negative reviewers, don't. Just don't. They will not be the ones who end up looking bad.

Comments:
By chance, did the earlier scene involve the characters snorting white lines off the backs of these doves? I've never seen so much merry laughter before and...oh, the exclamation points!

But all seriousness aside...

You've got a great point. If/When reviews do come by some day, I've often wondered if the ignorance-bliss route is the best one to take, just to avoid all the headaches I've heard it can cause. I'm sure I'll give in to the temptation some, but maybe there's an inverted relationship between how much you rely on those reviews for writing ego-boosts and how much you can simply enjoy the writing process...
 
I think it's a superhuman who can resist the impulse to at least read your reviews. The issue really is being sensible about them. Reviewers are individuals, not everybody likes the same stuff, so it's almost inevitable that you won't please everyone - and, convenient though it might be, unfortunately they're under no moral obligation to provide you with useful quotes. (The fact that a review does or doesn't provide you with a quote you can put on your publicity is one of the main reasons why you care what it says, once you're published. Quotes can affect your success.)

Inevitably if you've waited anxiously for a review and it doesn't give you anything useful, it's frustrating. Some reviewers will condemn a book because it's not the kind of book they like, which can feel very unfair; some reviews contain factual mistakes which suggest that the reviewer didn't read the whole book, or didn't read it carefully. All of which is annoying.

But that's your own business; what you shouldn't do is take it public. You've already made your appeal to the public with the book you wrote, and that's your side of the argument. If you don't like a review, you cuss about it in the privacy of your own home, you tell your partner/spouse/mother/goldfish exactly what you'd like to say to that reviewer - and then you don't say it to anybody else. Reviewers don't owe you anything - and frankly, they have to read books they may not like at great speed with tight deadlines all the time; it's a difficult job, and the right to say what they think is the payoff for that. They're entitled. I have occasionally said that through gritted teeth, but it has to be said.

As to the ego-boosts ... well, reviews are like everything else to do with writing. You get a good one, you're up for a while; you get a bad one, you're down for a while. Then you get on with writing. Everything associated with writing is bound up with ego somehow, but there's nothing to do but keep ploughing. It's never going to be relaxing!
 
In "Time enough for love", Robert Heinlein had a swipe at the critics, accusing them of being people with no creativity who spend their energy attacking people with creativity. If I remember right, he goes on to imply that if you haven't got the brains/balls to attempt to create art, you have no right to attack others who do. I remember feeling quite convinced at the time.

It's only two paragraphs in a hard sci-fi novel of probably 150,000+ words, but, although I last read it 20 years ago, it's that bit which sticks in my memory way more than the characters or plot...

As of today though, if I could I'd make a pact with the devil to trade getting published for a couple of crappy reviews*

*(subject to withdrawal if I ever actually do get published, mind)
 
That's the thing. I haven't read much Heinlein, but just by you telling me that I can spot that critics, ie educated people who read a lot, evidently disliked his books enough to say bad things about them. It kind of advertises the fact that you're getting negative feedback.

Anyway, I don't agree with him. If you follow the logic of that argument, nobody but an artist is allowed to have any opinions about art at all - unless they're worshipping at the temple of other people's creativity. And while I'd love to have lots of acolytes bowing before me and fetching me another cup of tea, I don't think that's workable. It wouldn't be a very nice world for most people.

I can't compose, but I can tell when a pop song is trite; I can't draw, but I can tell when a painting is bad. So can lots of people. You do need brains and balls to produce good art, but you also need talent. Not everyone has it, and it's not their fault if they don't. I don't know whether Heinlein means that if you don't have talent you can't identify quality, which is wrong, or whether he means that if you don't have talent you should just shut the hell up and respect your superiors, but either way, I'm not hearing common sense or respect for humanity there.

Saying that someone can't write doesn't mean they can't read. It's just a way of sticking your fingers in your ears and saying, 'La la, I can't hear you, you non-writing critic!'
 
Thinking about it, there's only one situation in which I'd say the fact that someone can't write means that their criticism is less valid: when they start attributing authorial intentions too freely. If you haven't the practical experience of writing a book, you're missing some crucial information that would inform your guesswork as to what the author was thinking; it's like trying to speculate why an engineer used steel rather than iron when you don't know anything about metallurgy. But that doesn't have a bearing on whether the finished product is good. I don't know what metals make the best bridge, but I can tell if the bridge shakes when I walk on it.
 
Fair enough, as I say I did read it a long time ago. Maybe if I have a root around at home and can dig it out and report it a bit more accurately...

But I think there is something if you think the critic has another agenda, for example if a critic slags your book but then praises something which you know is crap. In such a case you have no comeback - you can't get the critic to publicly debate with you his/her views. Maybe if that happened enough times it could send an otherwise reasonable person a bit do-lally?

Ho-hum, this is all hypothetical for me anyway... *sniff* Probably I'll never know what it's like to get a bad review... *sob*

-reaches for another kit-kat-

:-(
 
I think I'm usually more disappointed when someone doesn't "get" my stuff than when they don't like it. Heck, I read stuff I don't like all the time. Bad habit, I know--I'm trying to break it!

,.........

(extra punctuation courtesy of the kitten)
 
Oh, cheer up! You never know when good luck is around the corner :-)

I'm not that convinced by the idea that critics have agendas. (Not trying to quarrel, but it's an interesting discussion :-)). I think that critics who, to an author's mind, slag off a good book while praising a bad one, are most likely nothing more sinister than individuals whose taste and priorities differ from the author's. As they review many books, yours is not going to be as special to them as it is to you, so you may simply run afoul of their preferences and get a casually dismissive write-up. It's tiresome, but it's just one of the risks of the business. I'll always back bad luck over conspiracy if a reviewer seems to get something backwards.

Have a chocolate frog:
http://rarebirdfinds.typepad.com/rare_bird_finds/images/chocolate.jpg
 
Why do you read it if you don't like it, sqrl? :-)
 
So true Kit, thanks for reminding me! That's one of my personal mantras: you never know what's around the corner. Another one is: The light at the end of the tunnel is the headlamp of an oncoming train... :-)

I suppose it IS all so subjective. I wonder if less-than-perfect reviews aren't the grown-up equivalent of submission rejection letters.

Anyway, thanks for frog, that was yummy!
 
Pretty close, I'd say. They certainly involve similar coping mechanisms!
 
Having to defend your writing against someone's critique who didn't "get" the writing is like having to explain a joke. It never turns out to be funny, and it's often a wasted effort. I find that those who are determined to pick out something wrong with one's writing can conjure all the flaws they want..and since it is their opinion, the only defense you can have against it (aside from totally ignoring it) is discerning those with vendettas versus those who actually want to help improve the writing. Even the most wretched feedback can have good advice in it.
 
Why do you read it if you don't like it, sqrl? :-)

It's the triumph of hope over experience! lol
 
It's a strange thing to be saying but I found that passage that you quoted to be really engaging. Precisely because there was obviously a contradiction between what the author was saying and what they were feeling.

I agree with you that writing, or good writing, needs to be about truth (not so sure about the sacred responsibility bit) but in a way this does tell a truth. A complicated truth about the contradiction between intent and execution.

I found the passage really creepy in an engaging way. It was the writer who came across like the devil, oddly and demoniacally happy whilst she taunted these animals she considered to represent people.

In terms of feeding the birds, that does seem an apt analogy for the writer-critic relationship. I agree with you that often critics are just putting forward there opinion (though sometimes they are petty minded or have other interests). But still there relationship with writers is dependent. They rely on artists work to make their own money. Their oppinion
is certainly as valid as anyone else's, though the fact that they are in a position to have there opinion published does give them an odd advantage.

Either way, whilst they do have a partly vampiric relationship with writers, writers also depend on them in many ways. Just as people who feed birds get many things from watching and feeding the birds.

It certainly is wise not to have big rants at your critics, but I think many writers have done so in engaging and entertaining ways, ways that had aspects of truth in them, as both sides of an argument tend to do. And even doing it really badly as your example shows can lead to unintended consequences. Often I think it is unintended consequences that make the best art. Tolkien didn't intend the lord of the rings to have a darkness about the bleakness of human existence, the power of the atomic bomb and life in the trenches, but that it has these connotations is a deep and moving thing.

As to attacking critics for assuming that they understand what the writer is feeling/thinking, that seems to be having your cake and eating it a little, since we are all assuming what Mavis Whatsit was intending. Maybe we should believe her when she says the character wasn't based on her. We don't know for definite do we? But we think we are right. Often the critics may be right on what the author feels, often they'll be wrong.

Certainly as a rule its lazy and presumptuous to assume you know anything about the author when writing a review. But like all rules it can often be broken justifiably.

Anyway, I really enjoyed this blog, it really got me thinking. And as for reviews of Bareback, I think I've said it here before, but I'll say it again: My review of Bareback is completely positive. I really really enjoyed it. Not a very literary review, but an honest one.
 
'It was the writer who came across like the devil'

Now I'm laughing. I've got to tell the friend who lent me the book that - it hadn't even occurred to me, but I think you've got a good point. Certainly there's an air of happy sadism going on...
 
You do need some ability (talent? training? both?) to be able to accurately assess a book or a piece of art. Which is why my reviews mostly boil down to "I liked this, you should read it", and why I review books only on my blog and to friends.

Authors can say they intended anything, but to say "and therefore the book is not about anything else" is absurd. Also, people do tend to revise their memories to suit themselves, so though an author may be telling the truth about their memories, it may not be the truth in the sense of "these intentions really never crossed my mind". (The Fahrenheit 451 issue that popped up recently is a good example.)

Many bridges are supposed to move somewhat, as they can withstand high winds etc better if they do.
 
Well, the bridge is only an analogy; feel free to substitute another image. In my experience, the ability to judge art and the ability to create it are linked, but they're not synonymous. All I meant was that it's unreasonable to say critics aren't allowed to say anything about novels because they don't write them themselves. It sounds more like the last resort of a writer who's pissed off with his reviews than like a completely sound artistic position.

As far as authorial intentions go - I never said that the author's intentions should be the boundaries of the work. All I was really thinking about was occasions when I've been surprised by critics saying 'Whitfield clearly intends to do such-and-such', when I'm fairly sure I intended no such thing. Possibly I misremember, but as I was there when I wrote the book and they weren't, I still feel entitled to consider my opinion better informed.

It doesn't mean people aren't entitled to see things in the book that I don't think I put there; I just think they're wrong when they say I personally put them there on purpose. They're welcome to their opinions, but I don't have to back them up, any more than I have to agree with anyone I think has got it wrong.

Obviously there's a degree to which you have to use common sense - after all, I've just said I don't believe Marie Corelli's claim that Mavis Claire isn't a self-portrait, but at least in that case I think I have some evidence on my side (identical intitials, identical professions, identical opinions and a tendency on Corelli's part to overpraise Mavis). But in cases where the evidence is less overwhelming, I always find the author's opinion at worth worth considering.

Similarly, there are occasions where I think that critics are, if not forbidden from pronoucning opinions because dammit they haven't the brainsanballs to produce art themselves, likely to mistake an author's intention because they haven't the practical experience of writing a novel. Critics will assume you're making a theoretical point about the morass of vice by having your hero jump out of a window into a waiting swamp, when actually you put a swamp there because you couldn't think of another way to get him out of the building, you needed a soft landing, and, um, his town has some swamps, doesn't it? Where's my atlas?

In all these cases, there's a need for balance. Critics live by writing pieces that are designed to express a single coherent point, and are likely to attribute greater intended coherence to other kinds of writing because that's their own experience of it. We all tend to use ourselves as yardsticks when we judge others. Hence, a critic who assumes a work of fiction was written entirely and deliberately to express a certain theoretical point may be attributing more planning than they should.

There's also the possibility that an author might flat-out lie about their intentions when writing a book, of course. The ability to finish a novel doesn't necessarily prove an inability to ever tell stretchers. And critics can lie as well.

It's always a dicey business trying to work out what other people are thinking. Often we're wrong. But to conclude from that that we should never try at all would be to shut down a natural, reasonable and necessary human impulse: the impulse to understand, and have opinions, about other human beings. And we can't live that way. All we can really do is listen to other people and use as much wisdom as possible when trying to understand them.
 
Oh, I wasn't meaning to say intentions are never valuable. They are. But limited. I hold this for everything, really; what I *intend* when I do or say something is much, much, much less important than what I actually do or say. (I also think people are, generally, mistaken about their own intentions, or blind to many of them.)
 
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