Tuesday, September 19, 2006

One of Us Is Obviously Mistaken

The following is an important message to all Chicagoans who complained to Dick Mell's office that the sculpture by Lakeview artist Josh Lucas scheduled for display on the CTA's Brown Line is pornographic: If someone on your insurance has a penis that looks like this you ought to consult a urologist before you start calling your alderman.

I respond to Josh Lucas's critics so he doesn't have to.

In exactly one way artists are like boxers: Neither especially enjoys standing under hot lights in his underwear while being punched in the face. When you decide you want to write for a living, however, you're making yourself vulnerable by definition. Novels take time and effort to read and digest and writing one with the expectation that any person should read it is frankly an act of arrogance. We should be grateful that anyone ever praises us for it at all. But if it weren't risky, if it weren't for the prospect of being garroted by critics, no one could ever say that an artist was brave or ambitious or even clever.

Reviews can be intelligent or ignorant, but either way criticism tells us more about the critic than the subject. When Dale Peck famously called Rick Moody "the worst writer of his generation" Peck, like a character in a Nick Hornby novel, was telling us not who Rick Moody was, but who Dale Peck was, and what he had to say about himself wasn't especially attractive. I don't know if it was conscious or not, but that essay was all about Dale Peck and that's the kind of confession that makes criticism interesting.

And when criticism is uninteresting that tells us volumes about the reviewer as well.

I was listening to NPR the other day and there was a story about the singer Ryan Adams, who started responding to bad reviews with defensive voicemail messages left on newsroom phones. One of those critics was Jim DeRogatis of the Sun-Times. Another was Amanda Petrusich of Pitchfork who observed, "If someone says something mean about you, you either walk away or put your fists up and (Adams) always puts his fists up."

When artists respond to their critics they are only pointing us to the places where they're vulnerable, and the scars there are frequently ugly. Last summer Norman Mailer spit out a nasty rant about Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times and I'm certain not a single person in America changed his opinion of her because of it. At the same time there were no doubt countless people downgrading Mailer's legacy in their heads.

Of course, if Kakutani really wanted to insult Mailer she would ignore his books instead of trashing them. At this point in his career if the New York Times decided not to review one of his novels I suspect it might make Norman Mailer blubber into his pillow like Holly Hunter in Broadcast News. Everyone loves to get a sparkling blurb but I don't know any decent writer who wouldn't take hostility to his work over indifference.

I was speaking to a reading group at a bookstore recently and a gentleman raised his hand and said, "My other book club read Cast of Shadows as well, and one of our members paid you a great compliment. She said, If I ever meet Kevin Guilfoile I'm going to punch him in the mouth." I laughed and asked the man if he was a writer and he quickly confirmed that he was. Only another writer would hear that and think it was high praise.

Probably the dumbest thing a critic has said about Cast of Shadows appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. The reviewer (who is also a novelist) said, "Only certain kinds of thriller writers deem it essential to tell us, when two people are out to dinner, that one of them is eating pumpkin ravioli." I'm not sure what that says about my book, but it does tell you that this particular critic doesn't like details, a theory confirmed in the same review by the eleven times he misspelled my name.

Oops. Did I just respond to a critic? Damn. It's just so tempting.

I hate to think what it says about me.


ab said...

Any Chicagoan shunning a sculpture resembling two heavy golf clubs because they look phallic, should definitely avoid Sweden around midsummer. We have two kinds of maypoles: One is a pole penetrating a circle, and one is crosslike with round wreaths danglig from each side of the main pole.

And we dress those poles in flowers and - lo and behold! - children dance around them!

For critique telling more about the critics than us: How right you are! Except, of course, those who think I write like a godess and should be much more famous!

Pete said...

Or perhaps it just tells us that the critic doesn't like pumpkin ravioli.

Maryann Mercer said...

If it makes any difference, my first thought when seeing the picture was "Frankenstein's Boots", so where that puts me I have no idea. Frankly, I should think gratitude is the order of the day. How many sculptors want to beautify a stop on the rapid transit system? Of course, I like the Picasso too.
Some people will take offense at just about anything not meeting their perception of what 'should' be.
When I finally get published, I would just hope there is talk about the book. Period.

JD Rhoades said...

I was thinking "cartoon golf clubs" too.