Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Should Writers "Stick Together"?

How much should a writer publicly (and negatively) comment on the work of other writers?

If you pay much attention to popular fiction, you've probably heard about Stephen King's criticism of Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series. The blogosphere boiled: some defended King's right, even duty, to criticize other authors; others declared that King was motivated by jealousy and greed. On one commenter called King's criticism of a fellow writer "just tacky." That struck a chord because I remember saying that after author/lecturer roundly mocked another Christian writer's work as "trash." In fact, as I bring the situation up in my mind, it still seems tacky. And yet I criticize other authors on a weekly, if not daily, basis.

On the one hand (excuse me while I play Tevye), I don't fret over what I say about Marlowe, Edith Wharton, Joseph Conrad, or Dickens. Their places in the literary canon are not going to be disturbed by a few snide comments from an (as of yet) unknown writer.

Also, they're dead. I don't have to worry about running into Edith Wharton at some writing conference and having her snub me because I didn't love Ethan Frome. (This would be sad on so many levels, but largely because I'm sure Wharton would be an interesting person to know.)

But contemporary authors... Well, you could suggest that I'm worrying too far ahead of myself (a special talent of mine), but the publishing world is fairly intimate, so ticking too many writers off = bad career move. And I find that most writers, even those whose work I don't care for, are people worth knowing.

But this question goes beyond career or social moves. Humility, compassion, and truthfulness are all supposed to be part of the Christian life, but how these virtues relate to criticism (whether formal or informal) is still a bit of a mystery to me.

And as a writer, I know better than anyone else how much work and self-doubt goes into what may ultimately be a merely mediocre book. I know that what hits the page is never as vibrant or brilliant as what was in your mind. I know how brave it is to write. I also know that there are very few things I've read that are so bad that they couldn't, at some point, have been mine. There are a lot of unpaid critics out there. Does the world really need another one?

In this sense, I understand the bloggers who only blog about books they liked. They remind me a little of a relative of mine who was famous for her strict adherence to a "If you can't say something nice about someone, don't say anything at all" policy. The worst thing she was known to have said about someone was "Well... I'm sure he breathes well." I sort of admire this attitude. But sometimes I imagine that if taken too far, you'd find yourself having uncomfortable luncheons with a bunch of murderous dictators and remarking on how well everyone's breathing. (Of course, saying nice things about people doesn't mean you have to eat lunch with them, and anyway, writers are rarely allowed to rule countries.)

I don't generally feel the need to rant against other writers. I enjoy most of the books I read.

On the other hand (you were waiting for that other hand, weren't you?), getting read is not a privilege. My money and time only go so far--I rely on friends, blogs, professional reviews, etc. to help me decide what I might enjoy.

I'm certainly not trying to pass myself off as a professional reviewer (which should be obvious from my blog posts). I do, however, have a history of experience with books as a long-time reader, as an English major, as an editor... and as a writer. I notice what sort of work hasn't been done by an author. I'm frustrated when slip-shod workmanship and poorly thought out ideas are passed off as brilliance, and real, honest-to-goodness brilliance ends up in some dark hole of a back-list. And there are some books that are so dishonest that I feel like warning all potential readers against them (someday I'm going to talk about the Elsie Dinsmore series here). I recognize bad writing--I've created enough of it myself. But is pointing it out to the world mean, helpful, selfish, or morally neutral? Or is it "tacky?"

Maybe it depends on the presentation of the criticism. I'm not sure there's much good done by saying a book is "trash" or that someone "can't write worth a darn." But then I remember of Jesus bluntly saying "you white-washed tombs" to the Pharisees.

What do you think? Is there a line that shouldn't be crossed in writer-on-writer criticism?


  1. oh i can't wait for the elsie dinsmore discussion!!!

  2. It's an interesting question, to be sure. A while back I tried (and pretty much failed) keeping up a blog of comic-strip critiques. I pretty much kept to the stuff I liked and avoided stuff I don't like (I figured there's plenty of snark aimed at the bad stuff already -- one of the reasons I started the blog in the first place).

    One benefit, I found, is that it's allowed me to "meet" and correspond (in an online fashion) with some of my favorite professional cartoonists. Which has been invaluable to my own burgeoning profession -- plus it's just really cool.