I write criticism for money. Not much money. Don’t get excited now. Meanwhile, my own works are frequently the subject of criticism, including, and usually most vociferously, the criticism I write for money. My criticism gets criticism. Look it up. I wrote a book about this, called Compared to Hitler: Selected Essays. Such is our age. Fine, let fly.
When I am asked about navigating the supposed conflict between being a “critic” (I prefer the term Cultural Commentator, but people will insist) and offering works to the public that are the targets of critics, I always say the same thing, and will do so now: I do not object to bad reviews, only badly written reviews. By which I mean, style counts.
A well-written, rapier-cruel paragraph of criticism is worth any five media outlet interviews, because it makes people talk about you and what you made. Think of it as the equivalent of a celebrity feud—people talk about the squabble which leads them to talk about the celebrities and then the full circle of celebrity PR is made. Obviously, none of us are Taylor Swift, but I’m talking about systems here, not numbers. However, the converse idea—that criticism can “kill” a book, a career—is ridiculous and mere fear-mongering. And I can prove it. (Granted, it used to be true, and I watched many an artist’s career be destroyed by one bad review in, say, The Globe and Mail, but that was many decades ago, when criticism had far fewer outlets. But back to me …)
Here are some, a very few indeed, of my old war stories. They are true, trust me.
When I was more of a playwright than I am now, several of my plays were reviewed by newspaper critics who had been reassigned from their regular gigs as pop music critics and jazz critics. One infamous job-hopper began a review (not of my work, but he later came to my plays) stating that he actually hated theatre and wished he could do anything else but go to the theatre. He stayed on as a theatre critic for two years and attempted to ruin several careers out of spite. He failed. I think he is dead now. Good.
One of my early plays was about the childhood of a 19th century French novelist. It was a pretty mess, in keeping with my general style. The critic who gave it zero stars never noted anywhere in her critique that she was at the time writing a novel based on the exact same subject matter. The nerve of her was both astounding and sort of wondrous. She is still alive, pity.
My criticism gets criticism. Look it up. I wrote a book about this, called ‘Compared to Hitler: Selected Essays.’ Such is our age.
I once had an art show based on works from the Old Testament. A critic responded, rather hotly, by asking in her column, “Where is the Easter message, where is the story of Jesus?” You can’t make this stuff up.
When my second novel came out, a reviewer spent 700 words telling the reader how much and why he admired the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And then he concluded his review of my book by stating that since my book was nothing like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it was therefore no good at all.
Those are just the lowlights. My point is not that I have been put-upon but rather that despite the fact that inept people have crafted inane responses to my work, and I would be lying if I said I was not upset at the time, I am still here, still making things, still chugging along, deluded as ever. And I am not tough, not in the least. I cry over cat food commercials. Revenge, if you want it, comes slowly, perhaps years later. It comes to you when you realize that time has passed, you’ve continued to be a presence in the creative world, and that while your career may have been stalled or thwarted, it was not halted, and that “career” itself is as much a construct as “critical responses.”
There is something about making art that immunizes you against the flippancy of the criticism industry, but it takes years for the vaccine to kick in, and no two people have the same reactions. When I get together with artists and writers I’ve known since we all were young and mad with ambition, there is always a point when a collective sigh arrives; the acknowledgement that we are still here, still doing things, and cannot be stopped. The worst criticism can do is mess with your plans. So always have a plan B, a plan C, etc.
The reason I refuse to let the simple fact that many critical responses to my work have been less than stellar (in all directions: they disliked the work, they could not articulate their dislike with anything resembling intelligence) affect me in any way is that I know, because I write criticism for money, that sometimes a critic has nothing to say about a work, just can’t seem to connect with the art, and yet, because bills need paying, they make it all up.
And I am not tough, not in the least. I cry over cat food commercials. Revenge, if you want it, comes slowly, perhaps years later.
The money is shit, but shit money is better than no money. Furthermore, if you don’t make a deadline you don’t get another deadline. So you write something, anything. I’ve done it and so have you.
Thus, the content of the response, positive or negative, must be read with a hard side-eye: you could just as easily have gotten a rave. It’s a mood thing. And you’ll likely outlive the critic anyway. I did!
Now, some of you will read the above and think, “Typical RM Vaughan, that fat, jaded old queen,” and you’ll be correct. But so am I.
Criticism, you’ll argue, can make or break a career—a good review in the “right” paper (or, given this is Canada, a New York newspaper) can get you a Giller, a GG, a Trillium, or anything. No, a review cannot.
Here’s why: people get chosen for prize juries for all kinds of good and bad reasons. Do you really think those people then sit down and read all the reviews of the books that are arranged on their desks? Of course not.
The first thing they do is sort out the books by authors they have heard of, then pile up the books by authors who share the same publisher as them, then make a special pile of books that appeal to their good liberal sensibilities (books written by authors who happen to come from an under-represented community, books about Important Social Issues), and then, only then, do they begin to read. If they read them at all.
In other words, prize jury readers create their own kind of “review” system, one that is outside of the press reception to a book. That system comes with its own set of problems, but those are not our concern here.
So, what’s the magic formula? Connections. Connections get you prizes, connections get you grants, and connections build a career. Connections, even, to critics.
You know, the same thing that got you published in the first place.