We just got back from a few days out of town, visiting some friends. The friends are writers, and they invited some friends over for dinner, and the friends' friends were writers too. And then we went out and bumped into some more writers.
It was all a lot of fun--I like meeting other writers. But it's easy to see how the literary world can come to seem awfully incestuous. I've resisted many times, on this blog, the notion that contemporary literature is nothing more than a big clique, and that all that matters is who you know--the notion is cynical and reductive. But knowing lots of other writers is nearly inevitable, especially if you study or teach at a college, and for the most part it's desirable, too.
It becomes problematic, though, when you wish to perform the geuinely useful act of substantively criticizing other people's work. What if you end up on a panel with that writer someday, or have to deliver a reading together? What if that writer reviews books, as well, and yours falls onto her desk?
The screenwriter and novelist Derek Haas left a comment to the last post, in response to the thumbs-down I had just given his thriller. As you can see (and as he further proved in a subsequent email exchange), he's a good sport with a thick skin. But not everyone's like that. Indeed, hardly anyone is, and that's too bad.
Writers should criticize one another, respectfully and carefully. To offer only praise for the things you like doesn't quite constitute a useful dialogue--if something bugs you about a peer's work, and you can support your views, you ought to be able to express them, calmly, without the fear of making an enemy--and you should have the humility to accept similar criticism yourself. Of course, this is a hopelessly idealistic approach: in one of my many rants about book reviewing, I have probably said that the only people who are really qualified to review books are other writers. But other writers have prejudices and allegiances that are hard to overcome, and the results often come off either as hopeless snarking or professional backscratching, delivered with a wink.
I was talking with some colleagues about book reviewing, and I said that I preferred getting an intelligent bad review than a positive puff piece. And one colleague turned to me and said, "Bullshit." Well--she's kind of right. I certainly would prefer a ditzy rave to a thorough intellectual thrashing. But most of the reviews I've gotten that flattered me the most are ones that, at least in part, took me to task for subtle weaknesses in my work. One memorable review, in praising a recent book of mine, took the time to dismiss my first two, and my main reaction was, "Whoa--they actually read the first two." What I meant, I suppose, is that I would rather be read carefully than praised thoughtlessly, and accept the possibility that I might be found lacking. I think most serious writers feel the same way. We want to be part of something alive, something rigorous, not merely players in yet another form of casual entertainment. We need to keep one another on our toes, to have the respect to give and receive criticism.
All of this is on my mind, as I have a new book coming out next week and am bracing myself for negative reactions, or, worse, no reactions at all. I hope I can learn something from the former, but if I can't, I fear I will end up on my knees, begging the world for faint praise.