Literary critics (who write fiction) and pride

Pride was the theme of my ward’s sacrament meeting last Sunday. As you might expect Pres. Ezra Taft Benson’s landmark talk on pride was quoted by all four speakers. The talks were quite good and there there was a nice flow to the meeting. In particular, the two adult speakers did a good job of referring to the previous speakers and adapting their talks to what was said before. As a result, the residual effects of the meeting have stuck with me and I have found myself thinking about literary critics/reviewers — especially those who write fiction themselves — and pride. (Or in other words, I’ve been thinking about myself.)

This line of thinking also comes out of some of the high profile author meltdowns of late (one of note is detailed at Gawker) over bad (or even simply mixed) reviews. Look. Writing fiction is a tough business. It’s a lonely often emotionally wrenching and exhausting enterprise; the sweat equity is rarely worth it; the criticism generally outweighs the acclaim and the acclaim is, in the end, fleeting and not very emotionally satisfying long term.  Which means that healthy egos and thin skins are not all that unusual. And the thing gets messier when fiction authors write criticism (or literary critics try their hand at fiction) because envy — the companion of pride — often comes in to play. And even if the critic/author isn’t reviewing out of a place of envy, that’s often what the perception is and when that is how the review/piece of criticism is responded to (and it’s remarkable how many ways writers can hint that a bad review is because its author is just jealous) then pride gets wounded on both sides and the rhetoric often escalates.

So how does pride manifest itself in literary criticism? What do authors do to cope with the collision of literary ambition/pride and criticism. Here’s what I’ve been able to come up with:

  • One maintains a proud silence and refuses to engage. This is probably the best solution, but, on the other hand it is can still be a form of pride. One thinks of the haughty “I don’t read reviews” (with the undertone of my work is above criticism) or the fragile “I don’t read reviews” (with the undertone that I’m such a fragile, creative flower that I would wilt under such harsh, coarse treatment of my work  — a sort of false humility).
  • One only reviews and engages with work you like (especially work by friends). Also an understandable solution, but it sometimes brings with it the pride of cliquishness and the pride of placing yourself above the works you won’t touch.
  • One enters the fray — literary pugilism. Also a valid choice, and the one most conventionally pointed to as a manifestation of pride. This is the world of snarky reviews and literary tempests and using the power of the pen to demean, punish, vigorously defend, dismiss, whine, overpraise, etc.
  • One enters the fray but remains abstract. This is the approach of generalizations and manifestos and abstract assertions and rules and preferences (that also sometimes take a shot at another author or authors in a coded way). This is a sniffing at genres and generations and schools and The Bad State of Things These Days. The pride inherent here should be obvious — it is again the pride of being above the fray; the pride of self-importance; the pride of sweeping across the field with your critical eye and summing it all up.

President Benson said that the “central feature of pride is enmity.” I am of the opinion that all four coping methods above can and often arise out of enmity — or if not enmity, at the very least reproachful feelings. Am I wrong here?

And if I am not wrong, then what does criticism look like when it is engaged in with humility — without enmity, envy or pride?

19 thoughts on “Literary critics (who write fiction) and pride”

  1. .

    I think the issue is perhaps worse for critics than for anyone else. Because not only, like artists, do you think what you say is important enough for everyone to hear, but those words stand in judgement of others’ work. Skipping the enmity issue, criticism is almost pride turned into a career choice.

  2. Oh, wow, ouch. I am guilty of these things. I engage only with work I like. And the stuff I don’t like, I talk about in abstract ways. I’m not completely satisfied with this, which is one reason I have not updated my blog in lo these many months (which I feel guilty about, since you were so kind to link to it).

    There’s another dimension to it, though, which is this: the pull between honesty and kindness. I think there’s value in an honest review, but I also know a little of the work that goes into writing and I want to be kind to the creators. Isn’t it more kind to refrain from saying negative things about their work, than to speak up and discuss all the ways I don’t like it?

    I haven’t seen my approach as prideful so much as a necessary compromise between the desire to analyze with honesty, and the desire to be kind, or at least merciful, to writers.

    But there is an element of pride to it, this is true. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

  3. Theric:
    Perhaps. On the other hand, artists, after all, stand in judgment via the artistic choices that they make. In some ways, it can be seen as a form of cowardice to ignore criticism and criticize instead through the voice of fiction.


    Is the refusal to share critical insight truly mercy? And is it even kind? I don’t know. That’s why I’m bringing this all up.

  4. I would never avoid reading a review of my books, positive or negative, because I am very interested in the dialogue. Writing, after all, is an act of communication. I truly want to know how different people interact with what I’ve written. I think as long as a reviewer writes with integrity and focuses on the work, rather than their own preferences, then a review is a wonderful thing whether the reviewer loves the book or not. I think the most unfair response is to just say you hate the book without any justification.

    Feedback of any kind is very valuable to me and with the internet it is possible to hear back from readers of all types. The story changes and enlarges with each mind that engages it. I love being included in that metamorphosis and I think it makes me a better writer.

  5. Well, now I’m wondering if there is any alternative that is not, in your opinion, prideful?

    If I don’t engage, I’m too proud to lower myself or too fragile to take criticism (which is a form of pride).

    If I engage work I like I’m prideful in my literary parochialism.

    If I engage hostilely, I’m prideful just by entering the fray, because one does not enter a fray one doesn’t think one can win.

    If I engage objectively, then I’m prideful of my objectivity.

    I recently completely trashed a book on my blog (and took three very long posts to do it) because I’m a reader and I’d paid $24.99 (or thereabouts) for a hardback of a book that betrayed my money, my time, and my emotions, that jerked me around and then slapped me in the face when I was done. Was that prideful? Or just pissed off?

    Is there any recourse then but to not read at all, if one wishes to avoid pride?

  6. One point I do want to make, however, and that is how readers see authors take the criticism.

    On the genre romance blogs, an author who responds to a review walks a tightrope. One slip of a word here or there can turn a whole lot of people off your work.

    The unwritten code is IF you say anything, thank the reviewer for the review and be done. But better you say nothing at all than engage on any level.

    I have responded to two reviews of my book (other than to thank). One had some things factually incorrect. The other asked me a question directly. On both occasions I was trembling in my boots.

  7. MoJo: Exactly. I’m working on a follow-up post because a) I don’t know for sure and b) my thinking is devoloping in such a way that I don’t think a comment will suffice.

    I find the unwritten code thing very interesting. Is the sense that an author needs to be gracious and by responding to a review(and appearing prideful and ego-driven) you are essentially distancing yourself from the Body of the Field? Certainly, one of the strengths of genre fiction (although it’s really a double-edged sword) is that the relationship between author and reader is usually closer and more demanding.

    This is where one may need to make the distinction between reviews and criticism. I generally prefer not to make that distinction, but there are cases where it is useful.

  8. the relationship between author and reader is usually closer and more demanding.

    Yes and it seems almost intimate (heh) in genre romance (there are a few theories about this).

    This is where one may need to make the distinction between reviews and criticism. I generally prefer not to make that distinction, but there are cases where it is useful.

    Oh my. I think there’s a vast difference, especially now that (I am SOOO sorry to everyone I keep using this but it’s my only real frame of reference) romance is being critiqued as a viable literature and not dismissed as chick pr0n.

    I think that what appears in newspapers (heh) and on review blogs aimed for readers are *reviews* and NOT criticism, likeTyler’s writeup of The Fob Bible and the criticism that happens at Teach Me Tonight.

    I believe they’re two entirely different skillsets and for two entirely different purposes, and should be discussed as such instead of blurring lines.

  9. Another manifestation of pride in criticism is what I call the “intelligentsia syndrome” — when a guy summarily thrashes a work in order to flex his artistic muscles — to prove that he’s “in the know.” I’ve done that all too often (not so much lately) and I hate myself for it — and shamefully, such behavior usually proves that one is NOT “in the know.” A milder form of “intelligentsia syndrome” may cause an artistic myopia of sorts — when one will judge a work based upon a criteria that is acceptable according to the latest intellectual fade but is wholly lacking in scope and depth when applied to quality ground-breaking material.

  10. .

    In response to William (3) and Mojo (5) and in contrast with myself (1):

    Back to President Benson, it becomes pride when it is fueled by enmity. Others’ view of our motivations is one thing, our view of our motivations is another, our actual motivations may well be a third. But it is the third that ultimately matters.

  11. As regards the distinction between criticism and a review: I think it may also be useful to distinguish between a review essay—which takes a more extended look at the book-in-review in more theoretical terms, pointing out unities, disunities, patterns, themes, how it holds up against certain ideas, etc.—and a simple review (like the kind that might appear in a newspaper or on a blog), which sort of just summarizes the work and says, per se, “This is good/bad” rather than “This is how this works in literary terms.” I would classify the review essay as akin to an essay of literary criticism because that’s what it seems to gravitate toward. (If any of that made any sense at all.)

  12. I have to echo Emily’s “ouch” comment. All too often I have fallen into many of the traps mentioned in William’s initial post and in the comments.

    My first “ouch” rule is: never write or respond out of anger. Whenever I have done this – whether it’s hot, immediate anger or a more long-held anger of offended pride – I have regretted it later. Which maybe speaks to the truth of Pres. Benson’s comment about pride arising out of enmity…

    It is *definitely* harder to avoid the problems when one has become both an author and a critic. This is particularly the case in a small, close-knit community such as that of Mormon letters.

    In response (partly) to MoJo (#5): William said that all four patterns he was describing “can” arise out of pride. I take this as meaning that all four can also arise out of other sources as well. Maybe it’s not so much a matter of there being a correct way of responding, as the necessity of trying to put ourselves right first.

    The best reviews, in my opinion, include not only a discussion of the book but also – as an extension of discussing who might and might not enjoy the book – a kind of cultural criticism as well. If anything, however, this expands the potential territory for giving and taking offense. It also is a reason why I think negative reviews can be an important thing.

    Sorry. This is kind of disconnected…

  13. I didn’t think that was disconnected Jonathan. I made a blanket statement on my blog about my book reviews and my favorite book of the year and immeadiatly afterward had to make sure that I cautioned the LDS women (95% of my readers, I think) that they probably wouldn’t like it. Too violent, too much sex, etc etc.

  14. I’d like to follow up with a few more thoughts…

    The best solution, I think, is the one Zoe (#4) mentions: that is, taking the review as an entry point into genuine discourse. That becomes problematic, though, when reviews are mean-spirited or done with the intent (as Jack, #9, mentions) of showing off one’s intellectual or critical chops. Reviews written in an antagonistic spirit make it harder for any response from the writer to be viewed as anything other than antagonistic in turn. It takes considerable care on both parts, I think, to avoid this happening in the case of negative reviews.

    More problematic still is the long-term grudges and chips on one’s shoulders that can carry over from one reviewing experience to another. It’s all too easy to reading someone’s comments in light of previous interactions, or find oneself still trying to prove a point from a previous conversation. This is particularly problematic when we are, in fact, one fairly small community.

    As humans, I think we find it easier in some ways to classify those who have offended us (or vice versa) as strangers and/or enemies, so that thereafter we have no obligation to interact with them in any other way or at all. This, of course, is exactly what Jesus told us we aren’t supposed to do. It’s hardly surprising that we find this just as hard to do in the realm of writing/criticism as anywhere else – especially for those of us who have chosen to make storytelling an important part of our lives.

  15. MoJo’s distinction (review vs. criticism) is apt. When I’m writing book reviews for my blog, it’s definitely reviews, not criticism. The audience is the readers (specifically my blog’s readers). I’ll write criticism (what works and what doesn’t) in a private email for the author (which the author can take or leave).

    My goal for my blog is to write something that will be interesting for my readers. Book reviews can be fun in and of themselves, even if you read only a fraction of the reviewed books. In a book review, what I pride myself on (there’s that word! 😉 ) is finding and describing something that’s interesting and unique about the work so that readers will get an idea of whether they’d like to pick up the book or not.

    On your list, you might think I fall into trap #2 of only reviewing work by friends. One thing to note, however, is that of my entire list of reviews, there are only a couple cases where I knew the author first and the review came later. For the overwhelming majority, if I’m (virtually) friends with the author now, it’s because I met him/her by reviewing his/her book. And there’s nothing cliquish about it — if anyone sends me a manuscript or a review copy, I’ll read it and give feedback, and possibly also review it. (Actually, I’ve got two on my pile right now, which I think I’ll start on now that I’ve finished my big deadline on my tech/professional project.)

    I’ve also posted quite a lot of reviews of national/mainstream-published works, but I prefer reviewing the indie stuff for three reasons: (1) I want the stuff on my blog to be original and unusual — not just things people could read anywhere, (2) indie-published authors are actually interested in my critique and will engage in a discussion about various points, whereas the big shots won’t even bother to read my review, and (3) national commercial works are often so polished that all of the interesting and unusual bits are polished off, making them less fun to analyze.

    Sorry if #3 sounds like pride. Note that in that one I’m not talking about literary fiction — I generally leave that stuff to the pros.

  16. indie-published authors are actually interested in my critique and will engage in a discussion about various points, whereas the big shots won’t even bother to read my review,

    And there again, you may have the indie who won’t engage because they may feel it’s unseemly or unprofessional–but you wouldn’t know because the author hasn’t said WHY they aren’t engaging.

    Unless something is factually incorrect or I am asked direct questions by the blogger/reviewer or a commenter on the review (i.e., it’s clear that a conversation is desired), I won’t comment on a review of my work.

    As for thanking a reviewer/blogger for the review, I prefer to do that in email, but MMV.

  17. And there again, you may have the indie who won’t engage because they may feel it’s unseemly or unprofessional”“but you wouldn’t know because the author hasn’t said WHY they aren’t engaging.

    True, and if the author isn’t interested in chatting, obviously I don’t push it. I just mean that when I read/review indie-published works, I almost always end up having some email contact with the author.

    I think it’s just that writers naturally want feedback, so they’re more likely to want to discuss their book with me if my review is one of, say, five reviews than if it’s one of five thousand.

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