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A Written Case of Conflict?
Author vs. Author
by Tom Meek
You've probably never read a film review by a movie director about another auteur's work. It's just not done. Sure, some film reviewers go on to make films (Rod Lurie and Paul Schrader), and some even go from art to criticism (Roger Ebert penned three of Russ Meyer's sexplotation pics in the 70s), but you never see anyone in the filmmaking industry doing both at once. (Imagine you trashed a producer's film and then later needed to turn to him for the green to spin your latest box office gold; it'd be career suicide.) Not so in the literary world. A few years ago John Updike lambasted Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full in the pages of The New Yorker. What ensued was a vitriolic and very public pissing contest between two gigantic, alpha-male egos.
I have read Ellis in the past (American Psycho) and can imagine that some of Mr. Almond's assertions are true, but that does not alleviate the dubious tang of one writer bludgeoning another ...
The debacle (which pulled Norman Mailer and John Irving into the fracas) made the literati elite appear puerile and cheapened their stature. Time and publicists have repaired the damage, but is it viable to have one artist evaluating another when they're also rivals? It could be construed as a conflict of interest or worse, a cheap means of trying to ascend the throne of greatness by putting down another. In the case of Updike and Wolfe, both are well established enough that neither really has anything to lose as far as getting their next novel published, but what of those aspiring poets and novelist who (often) write book reviews for The New York Times and The Boston Globe? In their struggle for visibility, do they put down in order to push up? Take Steve Almond, a prolific and talented Boston based writer on the rise. Here's an except from his disemboweling of Bret Easton Ellis's Lunar Park, in the August 14th 2005 edition of The Boston Globe:
As for the prose, again, I defer to Ellis himself. He writes of Jayne, "Her face softened and for the first time this morning she smiled genuinely, without forcing it, without any affectation. It was spontaneous and unrehearsed."
Is his knock a sincere and honest form of criticism (the "that's five reiterations of the same information" bears some merit, but that's squeezing it), or a writer throwing a dagger at another out of envy? (Like or dislike Ellis, he is wildly successful in terms of money and fame.) I have read Ellis in the past (American Psycho) and can imagine that some of Mr. Almond's assertions are true, but that does not alleviate the dubious tang of one writer bludgeoning another in a under the guise of providing a helpful service to the reading public. One could argue that a literary writer (I would prefer to say "creative writer," but anytime pen gets put to paper, be it a novel, a letter to mom or a book review, there is always a degree of creativity. "Literary" is problematic too because it connotes a standard of excellence and in this context Daniel Steele unfortunately is lumped in the company of Ernest Hemingway.) could better evaluate the work more for its technical craftsmanship and flaws than someone whose primary occupation is to read and review (takes one to know one?). And surely Almond, who teaches creative writing at Boston College, and Updike, a literary uber mensch, are both qualified, but is their opinion valid and fair?
If you're keeping track at home, that's five reiterations of the same information.
Elsewhere, we are treated to gems such as "My hand was a white-knuckled fist clenched around the .38" and "We waited for what felt like eternity." Ellis announces that a ghost-detecting machine "resumed beeping again." At this point, I began to wonder if the book wasn't some sort of elaborate prank.
Do they no longer employ copy editors at Knopf? But then, why should they bother? People will buy this book, regardless of the juvenile writing and absurd plot twists.
Hard to say.
Criticism is not reporting. There is a degree of telling what happens in the work but it is more the pouring out of opinions and tastes onto a page with the readership and the book's (or film's) audience in mind. Critics with journalistic roots are trained to focus on these angles--and obviously posses the requisite expert level of knowledge to be critical, authoritative and credible. Authors and artists (arguably) are more passionate and less restrained. Does that inherently mean they can't be as objective as the critic when they sit down to pen a review?
Worse than jealous evisceration, is fawning admiration or shameless idolization. Neither is objective and neither helps the reader in their goal to determine if the book is for them or not.
Creative ego might obscure such vital considerations as their publication's readership, the book in question's target market and the "it is, what it is" factor. Writers are a funny lot when it comes to ego (Not to pick on Steve, but for a wonderful illustration, see his tale of another writer who took him to task, and the battle got personal). That's not to say they can't wear many hats and do it with the objectivity that the consumer needs, and wants to trust and value. Both bibliophiles are well versed in the history and styles of written word and possess a deep inner love for it.
The critic reads without impulse or jealousy, only the joy or sour apples served up, noting plot plausibility, character development and the book's worth within its self defined context. The lit. writer on the other hand might admire a verse or conceit and either embrace it glowingly or with harsh scrutiny seek to discredit the genius that did not spawn from their seed. Worse than jealous evisceration, is fawning admiration or shameless idolization. Neither is objective and neither helps the reader in their goal to determine if the book is for them or not.
I could review Steve Almond's next book and tell readers how Almond doesn't know to pen a sex scene to save his skin, while in the back of my mind, I know (wish) I could do it better.
In the end, it falls back on the reader to evaluate the review in terms of its tone and their preferences. (The one looking for a critical opinion, must first be the critic). Those whose sole occupation is to write about books objectively are probably the safer bet--they do it more and without doubt, have developed consistency, voice and a rhythm and flow. Those who publish in bound print however, have the insight and wisdom reserved only for their ranks. It's a piquant trade off that makes me wonder if it's not time for me to pitch my talents to The New York Times or The Boston Globe. I could review Steve Almond's next book and tell readers how Almond doesn't know to pen a sex scene to save his skin, while in the back of my mind, I know (wish) I could do it better. Not that I'm jealous or anything, I'd be totally objective.
About the Writer
Tom Meek is a contributing film critic for the Boston Phoenix and a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. His ramblings and rants have also appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Film Threat and E! Online. His fiction can be found at found at The Sink, Thieves Jargon and Word Riot. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, practices yoga religiously and rides his bike everywhere. Tom is currently working on a collection of short stories.
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