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The Value of a Good Critic

I knew a writer once who said he imagined critics' faces when he went to the gun range.I knew a writer once who said he imagined critics' faces when he went to the gun range. He went on to say that negative reviews took food from his children's mouths. Which begged the question, If a bad review steals food from your table, does a good review put the food back on? And do you then send a check to the positive reviewer? And would it be a check for regular supermarket prices or, like, Whole Foods?

We're losing critics left and right, just like we're losing newspapers left and right, and good journalists left and right, and I don't think any of it's a positive. An intelligent, non-snarky, articulate critic adds value to the culture. I've gotten slammed by critics I respect and thanked them for keeping me honest. I've gotten raves that meant nothing to me because they came from morons. Or from people who clearly hadn't read the book. (And that is the one type of critic I do reserve my contempt for. Not go-to-the-gun-range contempt but wouldn't-shake-your-hand contempt. If you get paid to do a job, you should do that which you took someone's money to do.)

But critics who give a book the respect of a tough, rigorous read and then return to camp with word of what they saw shouldn't be blamed for saying they've seen better. Shutter Island, the movie, was savaged by a prominent critic who clearly wasn't a fan of the source-referential homage quality that I employed in the book and Scorsese employed in the movie. Shutter Island is a book about books, essentially, and the movie is a movie about movies. The critic in question clearly hated movies about movies. Which I respect even if, in my particular case, I disagreed for obvious reasons. But his case was cogent and exceptionally well-argued. So at the end of the day, you shake hands and say, "Can't please all the people all the time. Maybe you'll like the next one. Peace."

I recently pissed off another critic whose skin I seem to get under like a splinter. And on one hand, I was ecstatic because the critic is a fearless standard bearer for mediocrity whose sensibilities I'm more than happy to offend, but then I got deflated because upon a closer reading, it became blatantly apparent that she hadn't even read the book. Sigh.

At the end of the day, I probably don't mind critics much because I spent six years in writing workshops where 10 to 15 people tear into your work. Two or three times a semester. For an hour. To your face. And have arguments like, "Well, I didn't think it sucked just because the prose was turgid. I mean, the prose was turgid, but I thought it really sucked because the characters were so poorly drawn." This the workshopee must weather silently, whilst taking notes (or pretending to). If you can handle six years of that, not pleasing a stranger at a keyboard doesn't weigh on you all that heavily.

Off the gun range now...

÷ ÷ ÷

Dennis Lehane is the author of nine novels including the New York Times bestsellers Gone, Baby, Gone, Mystic River; Shutter Island; and The Given Day, as well as Coronado, a collection of short stories and a play. He and his wife, Angie, divide their time between Boston and the Gulf Coast of Florida.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Gone, Baby, Gone Used Trade Paper $8.00
  2. Mystic River
    Used Mass Market $0.95
  3. Shutter Island
    Used Mass Market $1.95
  4. The Given Day
    Used Trade Paper $3.50
  5. Coronado: Stories (P.S.) Used Trade Paper $6.50
  6. Moonlight Mile
    Used Hardcover $2.75

Dennis Lehane is the author of Moonlight Mile

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