“I’m going to go out in the yard and eat worms,” is how the rest of that sad ditty goes. If you didn’t say it as a child, you know someone who did. And we have all certainly felt that way more than once or twice.
Arguably, to no one does this lament resonate more than writers. And now that writers write for more than newspapers and magazines, now that their essays and commentary gets critiqued by everyone—no matter how opinionated, ill-educated, cruel and anonymous– we can be sure that that feeling of being attacked by the known world will only multiply. If we aren’t out in the garden eating worms we soon will be.
Recently, I was put to right (or wrong, depending on how one looks at it) after I published an essay linking President Obama and Tiger Woods as downfallen role models. I was accused by many of being a racist for even mentioning their color and by others as daring to speak for the black community, something I had no notion of doing during the article or after. I tried to publish an apology and a mea culpa for being seen as a racist, but nothing I said was enough or good enough: the readers who loathed me wanted an admission of my racism (which I refused to give) and well, they also wanted my head on a platter.
But the truth is, because I know that I am not a racist, no matter how ill-conceived the piece appeared in hindsight, perhaps the comments that stung most were those that referred to me as a terrible writer and to the piece as the worst thing they had ever read (hyperbole notwithstanding). One critic even went so far as to look up one review of my book, Desire: Women Write About Wanting, and pull from that one review (the only one that was even slightly negative) a section that said that I had not quite accomplished what I had set out to do in the book. Damned with faint praise. But that was all the proof the commenter needed to dismiss me completely.
I have been interested in this phenomenon for a long time: this notion that because one writes on a public forum of some sort that one is just chum for the sharks. That not only do writers have to develop even a thicker skin than they already have done (just to write in the first place, then send the work out into the great unknown of agents, editors and publishers –only to have it summarily rejected), but that complaining about every John and Jane Doe who deems to comment is seen as whining. We have to just buck up. After all, everyone’s opinion is as good as everyone else’s, right? And engaging in any kind of back and forth most of the commenters just makes things worse.
Noted author and New York Times columnist and blogger Judith Warner had (and has) her ecstatic fans and her mobbed up anti-fan club for her recently cancelled blog: “Domestic Disturbances.” Each time she wrote, the comments divided clearly into two camps: those who were with her and those who were “agin” her. Although it must not have been pleasant to read the sometimes incredibly vituperative comments each week, I hope that, at the least, Warner took comfort in the fact that she was the subject of such passion—o n both sides. But, like other writers writing in our new age of information overload, she was castigated not only for her subject matter but for her sense of privilege, her writing style, and even her choice of writing material.
Comments on a recent article in Slate by Lizzie Skurnick would have had me running for the hills were I her. Skurnick’s commentary about the powerful, if adulterous, female played by Vera Farmiga in the film Up in the Air, had me wishing , after I read the comments, that I could put out my arm and pat hers and say “there, there, it will all go away in time.” And it will, in fact; because, even though the Internet is forever, memory in this country is remarkably short (as evidenced by every political decision ever made, as well as the incredible fickleness of voters). But the comments were all over the place: some readers cursed Skurnick for revealing a plot twist, others laid into her as thought she had somehow decided that killing newborns was the desirable thing to do. Comments ranged from terming her piece “a completely idiotic commentary,” to personal attacks accusing Skurnick of cheating herself, to two all –caps rants from a man who had obviously been done wrong some time in his past. That was not the first time that Skurnick has had this kind of criticism, either, as anyone who reads her knows.
In a most timely case, writer Joyce Maynard (whom I do not know well but who submitted a wonderful essay for a collection I edited a couple of years ago) is being chastised (and that is a polite term) for a reprint of a section of her memoir about J.D. Salinger in The Daily Beast. Although the book was published ten years ago—to praise and damnation—it makes sense, to this writer at least, that the Beast might ask Maynard’s permission to reprint a section of it upon Salinger’s death. After all, part of Maynard’s fame resides on Salinger’s communicating with her after she published, at the ripe old age of 19 a memoir (which she was also criticized for—the memoir, that is). She then lived with the author for nearly a year, before he took his reclusiveness to the limit. And once again, with the publication of some of that memoir, she is being taken to task for not waiting until the poor man’s body is cold. And dismissed by one wag as a “no talent media whore.” Another reader suggests that she “crawl back under the rock where you belong.” I don’t know about the rest of you, but isn’t that sort of overkill? Maynard is a very good writer who has a large fan base and who had every right and privilege to both publish a memoir of her relationship with Salinger and give permission for a reprint of parts of it to the Beast. Is Salinger so sacrosanct that he is above writing about?
Of course not. In fact, one of the things that sparked this essay was a compilation of reviews of Salinger’s work that I read today in Galleycat. Among those reviews of Salinger’s masterpieces (to some) were thus: “ A sense of composition is not among Salinger’s strengths, and even these two stories, so apparently complementary, distinctly jangle as components of one book.” (John Updike on Franny and Zooey); and “What most struck me upon reading it for a second time was how sentimental — how outright squishy — it is. (Jonathan Yardley on The Catcher in the Rye) Later, of course, the critics caught up with the loyal readers, but I daresay today one could find a huge number of persons who have either never read any Salinger or find him unreadable and uninteresting, despite the fact that The Catcher in the Rye still sells 250,000 copies a year and Salinger’s stories are among the most loved by many writers who came after him.
I personally am sick about the fact that a large number of known men and women think I am a racist and hate the fact that some of those same people think I am a terrible writer. I am sure Skurnick recoils at the possibility that strangers have decided she is an adulterer and that Maynard is sick and tired to being said to profit from her relationship with Salinger (this accusation particularly resonates me as I am in the process of writing my own reminiscence of a friendship with writer Robert Parker who died last week).
But what does it all mean? Everyone knows that now classic writers like Joyce and D.H. Lawrence and Henry Miller were deemed unpublishable. Before, that is, they were published. And it is easy enough to collect any number of bad reviews as against any number of good ones for most writers of the past and the present. But there is something about writers now putting themselves out there on news and blogs and online publications that makes us fair game.
So, is the fact that writers are out there on the ‘net writing and publishing mean that we will always offer up something for the collective readers to either praise or to damn? Yes. Is the opinion of anonymous haters, amateur critics, readers with an axe to bear, as valuable as that of professional critics? Perhaps, but only if we choose to make it so. Or are we all left to make up our own minds as to what is, and is not readable? I think the latter, at this point. The bottom line is that when disseminating information to a wider and wider audience than could originally be reached by “old-fashioned” methods of publishing, writers are going to have to realize that strange, hyperbolic, cruel and ignorant comments are going to crawl out of the woodwork, right along with the appreciation and praise and sense of discovery that will emanate from the mouths of our fans. It is all of a piece and unless we choose the kind of reclusive anonymity of Salinger, we had better just put up with it.
No longer will bad reviews of writers be a thing to be collected in darling books and marveled over in the future. Our bad reviews are right in front of us, living forever, on this thing we call the Internet. We had better grow even thicker skins and get used to it.