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?