By James Parker
Getting a bad review is no longer an elite experience. We’ve all been trolled, oafed, flambéed in some thread somewhere.
To answer the question directly: No, no, a thousand times no. A writer should not respond to his or her critics. A writer should rise above, in radiant aloofness. Sometimes that’s not possible, of course. I was drinking with a friend in London when he spotted, on the other side of the bar, a man who days before had reviewed him cruelly in a national newspaper. My friend grew agitated. “I’ll punch him in the face!” he said. “No, wait. I’ll buy him a drink!” He paused. “What should I do?” He had no idea, and neither did I. Aggression, under the circumstances, seemed quite as promising/futile as magnanimity. I don’t even remember what he did in the end. The point is: You can’t win.
“Sometimes you are the pigeon,” Claude Chabrol said, “and sometimes you are the statue.” Wonderful, Gitane-flavored words. But we are not statues — we are not made of stone. Anointed with guano, do we not feel it? And right now everybody feels it. Getting a bad review is no longer an elite experience. Writers and non-writers, mandarins and proles, we’ve all been trolled, oafed, flambéed in some thread somewhere, at the bottom of some page. Scroll down, scroll down, take that Orphic trip into the underworld of the comments section, and there they are — the people who really object to you. Their indignation, their vituperation, is astonishing. It seems to predate you somehow, as if they have known and despised you in several former existences. You read their words and your body twitches with malign electricity. You must get out of this place immediately, run toward the light. Let the dead bury their dead. And don’t look back — because if you do, like Orpheus, you’ll lose what you love the most.
What are the avenues, anyway, whereby the writer can respond to the critic? Letters to the editor are hopeless; they always sound either querulous or insane, with horribly writhing syntax. And swatting at each other on the Internet does no good; round and round you go, in a troll spiral. You can make the critic a character in your next novel and give him hemorrhoids. You can talk loudly against him at parties. Or, rarest and most blessed of all, you can pay attention. In his memoir, “Prince Charming,” the great poet Christopher Logue, in mellow old age, dives into “a chocolate-liqueur box filled with dated clippings of every review that my books, plays or radio programs had received since 1953.” He makes a discovery. “How differently they read now. At the time, oh, the complaining: That fellow failed to praise me for this, this fellow blamed me for that. . . . Now, how fair-minded their words appeared, how sensible their suggestions for my improvement.”
But there remains that feeling — that feeling of being misunderstood and misused. That subtracted, sad-child feeling. You may be wondering how it is that I, who have written derisive and destructive reviews of books I considered not good, who have taken pains to make public, in as amusing a way as possible, the inferior qualities of this or that author, can be so terribly thin-skinned. Is it the case, you ask shrewdly, that I can dish it out but can’t take it? To which I reply: It is absolutely the case. I can dish it out endlessly, and I can’t take it at all. I believe I share this characteristic with most members of my species.
I’m learning, though. We’re all learning. The hatchet job, at the dinner table or in print, is a decreasingly admired form. So to the authors I have injured with my criticism, I say this: Your book may not have improved, but my moral qualities have, slightly, and I regret the pain I caused you. And if we happen to meet one day, punch me in the face and buy me a drink.