So there’s one way I can talk about this and it’s this: Jordan and I were talking the other day about how our values differ. Jordan values things like consensus, peace, getting along, happiness, puppies (he really likes puppies), and hugs.
I value excellence, honesty, and justice. Also, cats, fidelity, and tongue kisses. But mostly excellence, honesty, and justice.
Really. I realize that sounds ridiculous. But, were I to have a coat of arms, it would look like this:
Jordan says that my life won’t be easy with values like mine.
I’m inclined to agree.
I’m thirteen or fourteen and I read the Star-Ledger every morning—the comics section, the entertainment news. One Sunday there’s a review by a guy named Jay Lustig where he pans a Hanson concert. He looks long and hard at the production values, the tinny quality of the music, the poor job these teenage boys did of lip-synching.
One week later, the paper prints a half-dozen angry letters written by girls my age. How dare he?! they demand. Just who does he think he is?! These are teenage boys! They shouldn’t be judged by someone who doesn’t make music himself! And so on. And so forth.
So I write the Star-Ledger a letter. I thank Lustig for respecting the Hanson brothers enough to review them as professionals, without cutting them slack because of their age. I thank him for being detailed and specific in explaining his feelings. I thank him for writing a solid, interesting review. And I write that I hope he doesn’t feel that all teen girls are incapable of appreciating excellent reviewing.
A few years later, one of my classmates brings me a newspaper clipping. She found it in a notebook at the back of her closet. She’d read it, and saved it. It’s my letter to Lustig. I never even knew it made it into the newspaper. My first piece of published writing. In praise of a negative review.
Lustig’s name isn’t the only one I remember from that time. There’s Stephen Whitty’s pleasantly grumpy film reviews. And Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall. My Star-Ledger friends; my morning friends, what I woke up with before I drank coffee. Before there’s caffeine, there’s them, convincing me to take a step back and look at things a new way: yes, Sliders really wasn’t much more than squandered potential. Yes, Sports Night was much less awkward without the laugh track.
They make me appreciate these things more deeply. They make me think in a way I hadn’t before.
And I love it.
I’m a Siskel girl. I’ll always be a Siskel girl. He hates more things than he loves, and so it feels earned when he does love things, and so I understand him better. We have the same sonar, so to speak.
But perhaps Ebert is more relevant to this discussion. After all, Ebert wrote a screenplay. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. A finger in two dikes. A two-faced man. An artist (?), and a critic. The most dangerous kind of creature.
Also Randall Jarrell. Also TS Eliot. Also Ezra Pound. Also my teacher, William Logan, whose Google alerts might be sounding in his mailbox right now. And Harold Bloom. And Stephen King. And Orson Scott Card, who I’ve heard reviews everything. John Gardner. There must be more.
You might say, wait, these men were or are institutions. They can say what they want.
You wouldn’t be wrong.
Whose career would you emulate? Who is your model of ambition? If you had to travel a path which was not your own, which fairer road would you . . . ?
My answers are all women whose lives and work seem to exemplify the qualities I admire most: excellence, honesty, justice. Ursula K. Le Guin, Margaret Atwood, Nancy Kress.
Fearless, fearless women—and it’s well deserved, because their careers are shining examples of intellectual and creative excellence.
They have nothing to fear. What can anyone say that would cut them down? You can’t. They might as well be made of carbon steel.
You must understand that with all of these people, I don’t always agree with their tastes. But I respect and admire the way that they explicate them.
About the women, I guess you could say that they exemplify the traits seen as “bitchy” in our society too. I mean, I know bitchy. I was a Hillary supporter.
But was Jarrell a bitch? Eliot? Pound? William or Stephen or Orson or John? Are men bitchy when they stridently speak their minds, shamelessly striving for excellence? When they openly criticize and/or critique each other? Are men told, “You catch more flies with honey”?
And why do we police other women? Why do people seem to care if women have an opinion of one another’s work? Was Ebert told, well, go ahead and speak your mind as long as you never try to make it in Hollywood?
People have given me criticism that was clever, cutting, and snarky. Sometimes it hurts. I rage, cry, gnash teeth, and rend garments. I have this good friend, Pat (hi, Pat!), who often tells me his thoughts on my books in the worst possible way.
After a few days of hating my writing, and kind of hating Pat a bit, I often realize he’s right. Or at least, I can see where he’s coming from—I know his tastes as a reader, and understand his perspective. He’s perceptive, even if I don’t agree with him.
Then we sit down and have beers together. You are not obligated to like everything I do in order to be my friend. In fact, I would find such obsequiousness kind of creepy.
I have a feeling it will go the same way when I’m published. I’ll rage, then burn, burn about the negative reviews. And then I’ll get over it, learn from it, move on.
And if I ever run into you, and you’ve panned me? I don’t know. I’ll probably have a beer with you. We’ll have a loud, passionate debate about something stupid. That’s how I roll.
As a long-time lover of books and reviews both, I understand that even the most cutting negative review comes from a place of affection, a place of love. Maybe not for the author, but for the book, and what it could have been, even if it was not.
I think in reading we seek out a sort of platonic ideal of a book. I think even the most jaded Siskel is actually saddened, deep down, when a work of art has not exceeded his expectations. Every new book is like a first date. Every review? A love letter of sorts. We want to share with the world the pain or the joy of a love either fulfilled or unfulfilled.
Sometimes it seems to me that, with GoodReads and book blogs and amazon reviews, the world is a scary place for authors now. It’s like your exboyfriend is telling everyone on the internet all the things he didn’t like about you. This is art, and not a private life, but still, I suspect it feels that way.
I think it helps that you understand that readers—professional or amateur—are doing this out of love. Maybe not for you, but for your book. They want to love your book. They want to be surprised. Sure, some of them are hardened, jaded, snarky, cynical. But they wouldn’t be reading it at all if they hadn’t, at some point, hoped to love your book.
A few weeks ago I visited my mother. She subscribes to O, and I read it in the bathtub, and there was a Jay-Z quote, which I’ll paraphrase: “I learned early in my career that it would be easy to be famous as someone else. I didn’t want that. It’s not worth it. I want to be famous as me.”
None of what I say matters.
Some people will despise me. Some people will find me presumptuous, pretentious, and cloying. Maybe they’ll think I’m a bitch. Maybe they’ll think I’m destroying my career. Maybe agents or editors who don’t understand will shut their doors to me. But I hope there are agents and editors out there who understand. I hope there’s room for passionate, honest, and vocal people in the world of publishing.
At twenty-seven, I’m still young, but I’ll say this: reviewing has been good to me, and I love it. Fiction has been good to me, and I love it, too. For the time being, I still feel I must strive for the qualities I admire most in others and myself: excellence, honesty, justice.
I’ll let you know how it goes.