The Critic as Death Demon

Referring to the header image above, a late medieval woodcut depicting three personifications of the plague snatching the occupants of a print shop. At the time it may have been an in-joke in reference to censors who, back in the day, could get you burned at the stake.

I like it because I think it speaks to the innermost fears of authors happily going about their business yet constantly worried a critic might at any moment destroy their careers with an unexpected avalanche of unfair criticism. What’s the point of spending a lifetime developing one’s writing skills only to be sabotaged by some jerk trying to be clever?

I’m pretty sure this rarely, if ever, happens.

Besides, most critics, many being writers themselves, are conscientious. And then there’s the likely fact that most readers don’t read critics anyway. What truly counts is word of mouth. Add to this the extremely common phenomenon of readers “discovering” a favourite author and buying up everything he/she has written and/or will ever write, and really, the automatic dread of critics many writers feel is actually a kind of unwarranted subliminal urban myth. This type of death demon doesn’t actually exist.

“Fuck the critics and full steam ahead!” is the proper attitude for a writer to have. I think you’ll find most successful authors follow this policy. They are successful in part because they don’t waste time worrying about their reviews. Instead they treat them as a promotional resource, mining them for useful quotes and ignoring the rest.

So where do I, a newly minted critic, fit in? Possibly in the “some jerk trying to be clever” category. However, as I was explaining to Jill and Walter at White Dwarf Books, I’m focused on the strengths and intentions of authors, not their weaknesses. They were a bit dubious. “But what if they’re terrible?”

“Then I won’t review them.”

“But what if they send you a review copy and it never gets reviewed? Then they’ll know what you think.”

“Oh… bugger…” I said, because I suddenly realized I hadn’t properly thought through the full implications of my policy. “Well, I guess they’ll have to be satisfied I didn’t share my opinion with the public.”

“What about review copies stuck in your backlog of books waiting to be reviewed? As the months go by, given your statement you won’t review crap, might not the authors suspect you think their book is a piece of crap?”

“Oh… Bugger…” I said, because I suddenly realized this critic business was more complicated than I had anticipated. “God damn it, now I’m going to feel pressured every time I glance at ‘that’ stack of books. I’ll be living under a ‘perpetual’ deadline. I hate deadlines.”

“It’s your own fault, you know.”

“Oh, shut up.”

Truth is the conversation didn’t go exactly the way I report it above. I exaggerated a little. Okay, I exaggerated a lot. Being a critic you see. “..some jerk trying to be clever.” That’s my job.

But I believe I got my point across. What point, you may ask.

Oh… Bugger… I guess it shows I’m a lazy, sloppy-minded critic who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Thinks he’s got a lot to say, but all of it bullshit.

Relax. You’ve got nothing to worry about. I’m mostly harmless, by default.

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