Moby Dick was declared “dull, dreary, and ridiculous” and Orwell’s 1984 “a failure.” In literature, bad book reviews and effusive praise come with the territory. Just celebrate you are being noticed, and be sure your name is spelled right.
Every serious novelist worth their salt believes in their soul that they have written a brilliant novel – or multiple novels – in which the reader will find compelling characters engaged in deeply imagined stories that profoundly illustrate the human condition.
What every novelist yearns for is for others to be moved by their work, to be praised, acclaimed, recognized and celebrated for what they truly believe is their masterful artistic performance.
Of course, we might deny such a characterization and offer the explanation that it is the only the work itself that matters to the true artist. And while such a conviction does have the ring of truth, human vanity and the power of the ego is too deeply embedded in the psyche to be denied.
With that thought in mind, how does a novelist whose work is presented to the scrutiny of allegedly influential reviewers react to those who trash their book?
Think of the horror of being on the receiving end of such book reviews after perhaps years of composition and effort. What must this do to the author’s aspirations, vanity, self-worth and, in a practical sense, sales, career hopes and legacy?
The serious novelist believes in their gut that their work is deserving of acceptance and hopefully adulation, commendation, prizes, awards, perhaps immortality and, of course, sales.
I am reminded of the raw horror of such disdain by the experience of the novelist Theodore Weesner, who died recently and whose first novel The Car Thief, was excerpted and acclaimed by The New Yorker, Esquire and The Atlantic Monthly and cited by reviewers as brilliant and original. It was published in 1972.
He enjoyed years of prestige and received decent reviews for his other novels and years of teaching at various prestigious universities. Admittedly, he did not achieve the continued adulation and respect he had wished for, often acknowledged, after his brief spurt of literary celebrity, as a fine but largely unsung novelist.
But it was the letter he wrote to the New York Times book review after a tepid review of his novel The True Detective that illustrates the real agony of the disappointed artist and a cautionary tale of the dangers of putting too much faith in the opinion of others.
The Times Book Review, in its inimitable arrogance, published Mr. Weesner’s letter, which I will quote in full:
“The book in question is one I worked on for more than five years and it came alive and does work—it is relevant and it is compelling … and the responses I’ve received from others have been genuine, extravagant, even passionate. Yet you chose to give it a short inconspicuously placed and—I just cannot deal with this—your reviewer did not even understand what he read. I repeat—your reviewer did not even understand what he read. And he printed it. You break my heart. You owe me much more than an apology.”
In essence, Mr. Weesner spoke for most novelists. It is the agonizing cry of all artists who present themselves naked and alone to a most indifferent and dismissive public.
There is a lesson here for all of us novelists who pursue our writing endeavors. Firstly, understand that all novelists had their share of bruises.
Here are some examples from an age where books were pervasive and did not have the technological abstractions they do today:
The Saturday Review, London cited Charles Dickens this way. “We do not believe in the permanence of his reputation.”
Le Figaro’s reviewer said of Gustave Flaubert, author of the immortal Madame Bovary, “Monsieur is not a writer.”
The eminent critic Clifton Fadiman in one of his reviews of William Faulkner’s novel called it, “The final blowup of what was once a remarkable, if minor talent.
The literary goddess Virginia Woolf wrote of James Joyce, “I finished Ulysses and think it is a misfire.”
The Southern Quarterly declared that Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is “sad stuff, dull and dreary and ridiculous.”
And a legendary German critic cited Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks as a “worthless story of worthless people in worthless chatter.”
And this one by one of the great British literary critics about George Orwell: “1984 is a failure.”
I cannot fail to mention the opinion of the works of two of America’s greatest literary icons. The editor of Bookman said this about Mark Twain: “A hundred years from now it is very likely that of Twain’s works: The Jumping Frog alone will be remembered.” And a London critic said of Walt Whitman: “Walt Whitman is as unacquainted with art as a hog is with mathematics.”
I cite here a few examples gleaned from The Experts Speak by Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky.
The lesson to be learned by anyone who chooses any artistic endeavor in today’s world where criticism is ubiquitous and mostly indiscriminate: It is a great achievement just to be noticed.
Everybody has opinions. Consensus has become a major miracle. Technology has given everyone a voice. No one can predict the future. Bad book reviews, bad opinions, insults, verbal abuse, diminishment, jealousy, frustration, along with effusive praise come with the territory. In today’s environment celebrate you’re being noticed and, whatever is said about you and your work, be sure your name is spelled right.
Besides, good reviews are not necessarily a harbinger of future success. In our contemporary world everything passes at warp speed. Here today, forgotten in a wink. I’ll go with the folks who say that investing passion and creative energy into the work is everything. The real trick is to just keep at it. Do your best and stop complaining.
Mr. Weesner had his say. Good for him.
I read it in his obituary in the New York Times, of all places.
Image via ShutterStock.com.
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