From the hearts and flowers of Valentine’s Day to the heartbreak of criticism.
Let me start by saying that Maureen Dowd, whose columns I usually enjoy, got my dander up with a recent one about Chick Lit, where she–who I thought was hipper than this–used that hoary old cliché of “bodice ripper,” in referring to…um…my genre. She devoted the column to generally putting down all those jillions of books written primarily by women primarily for women. All those books with HEA endings. Books where the women are at least as important as the men.
So I sighed and turned to the shelves of my library, where I usually go for comforting. Well, I go for comforting to chocolate, too, but I’m trying to be erudite, here.
It could be worse, viz:
“Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good,” wrote Samuel Johnson to some unfortunate aspiring author.
As is the case with actors, musicians, and any other artists and craftspeople, the writer’s life is not for the faint of heart or thin of skin. And yet no matter how long one has been in this business, a negative review or harsh critique–or a sweeping dismissal of a whole genre–can cut one to the quick. Some of the wounds might take a long time to heal.
I often take comfort–though not very much–in knowing that it happens to everyone, even the greats.
“Critics! Appalled I ventured on the name,
Those cutthroat bandits in the paths of fame,” wrote Robert Burns.
Even Byron, who seemed not to give a damn what anyone thought of him, did care. Criticism stung, and he felt it, as is made clear in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers:
“A man must serve his time to ev’ry trade
Save censure–critics all are ready made.
Seek roses in December, ice in June;
Hope constancy in wind, or corn in chaff;
Believe a woman or an epitaph,
Or any other thing that’s false, before
You trust in critics…”
Yes, if you cut us we bleed, most of us; some more than others.
As Byron demonstrates, it doesn’t matter if the criticism is patently unfair–or even insane. Anyone who’s browsed the Amazon reviews has come across utterly demented reviews, or ones written by persons who obviously have Issues. I read one recently–not of my book, because, to preserve my sanity, I stopped reading Amazon reviews of my books some years ago–but of a historical novel. The alleged reviewer gave the book the worst possible rating because–are you ready?–he didn’t approve of the behavior of its historical personages. Meanwhile, everyone else gave the book the high rating it deserved. But that one nutty review reduced the number of stars. And I’m still ticked about it–even though it wasn’t my book!–so irritated, in fact, by this one idiotic comment, out of dozens of rational ones, that I’ll probably stop reading Amazon reviews of everyone’s books.
But there are no rules about critics and never were.
Even reviews in periodicals, (yes, even my beloved New Yorker) even those written by scholars or other famously knowledgeable persons, can be unfair or demented. I have read movie reviews by respected critics and wondered if the reviewer and I saw the same movie. I have read others and realized that the reviewer wasn’t critiquing the movie he or she saw but was peeved because it wasn’t the version of the story the critic wanted told or told as he/she imagined it ought to be. Some criticize an actress’s looks instead of her acting. Yet hardly anyone seems to notice, as I do, let alone comment on, the abundance and absurdity of all those Gidget and Geezer movies: middle-aged or older hero and the girl young enough to be his daughter, if not his granddaughter.
Chick Lit, according to Ms. Dowd, is laughable, a sad commentary on our times and our shallowness–and Gidget & Geezer is not?
But yes, I’ve read fair reviews, too, and ones that taught me something–about the art form or the performers or the composers or painters. As an English major in college, I read reams and reams of criticism, and learned from it. I learned how to think critically, too, which included questioning the authority of those who critiqued. I learned that fashions in criticism come and go.
And one thing I’ve learned is that it’s always been fashionable to mock the work of women writers, especially those writing popular fiction.
When Lady Morgan published Italy in 1821, “the wolves were out,” according to Paul Johnson’s The Birth of the Modern. “Byron hailed the book as ‘fearless and excellent’ in the Quarterly.” Everyone else went insane, apparently. One critic wanted “a Royal Commission to inquire into her age” and “demanded that the Irish law officers begin an investigation to see if the knighthoods bestowed on her husband and brother-in-law…were illegal.” William Hazlitt said “women had no business involving themselves in art history and criticism.” Someone else called her “‘a monstrous literary abortion.’” “She was ‘an Irish she-wolf’ a ‘blustering virago.’” Any wonder why so many women wrote anonymously or pseudonymously?
Lady Morgan’s critics might not have minded so much if she hadn’t been so hugely popular. Her novel, The Wild Irish Girl, made thousands and went into seven editions. For the maligned Italy, she was paid £2000, an enormous sum in those days, especially for a woman to earn.
Maureen Dowd’s comments about Chick Lit are not merely mild by comparison; they are tantamount to high praise.
Thank you, History, for providing perspective, as always.
What do you think about reviews and reviewers? Help or hindrance? Annoyance? Source of guidance? Or do you ignore them altogether?