James LevyAnd this is how Harlan replied. I felt this was worth preserving.
Syosset, New York - Tuesday, April 29 2008 8:1:44
Staggering to one's feet after getting panned
Last week, my second book got panned--real good. First one got mixed reviews; this one a generally positive write-up, then--pow--a big name let the hammer down. And, worse, he's a good historian, one I respect. You see, I'm an academic. Most of us write the one book if we want to get tenure (which I have yet to be awarded). Only 9% of academics who publish the first book go on to write and publish a second. So I consider myself, with the attendant articles and book reviews, a real live writer. And last week my work got absolutley savaged by somebody I respect. I know I should and must dismiss the twits who review not what you have produced, but what their tiny minds imagine you've produced. But have you ever experienced a bad review from a person you hold in high regard? And how have you dealt with it? At 43 with a Ph.D. I thought it wouldn't rattle me like this--but it has. By chance, have you got a charming, uplifting anecdote you might reach into your bag of tricks and share?
Yours most sincerely,
- Tuesday, April 29 2008 19:17:17
GOOD WORDS TO JAMES LEVY
Oh boy, kiddo; yeah, this is a real tailspin kind of thing. If you can read the review as objectively as possible, divesting yourself of ego and heartsick feelings, just clear your head and READ IT for content, and then...
If you can honestly--as objectively as you can in the face of such a smackdown--if you can honestly say, "Uh, yeah, he's right; maybe not to the degree he unloaded on me, but at core, yeah, he's got me," the review and the pain will have been worth it.
In fact, it may be the biggest favor anyone judging your work has visited on you. Look, James, most of the people we know will NOT tell us the unadorned truth. They don't want to have to handle the look on our face when we hear that our work was insufficient...or worse! They aren't sparing US the pain, they're sparing THEMSELVES. That's why I won't read humbly tendered unpublished work by someone, even a close friend, ESPECIALLY NOT a close friend. I am incapable of airbrushing the warts, and most people (especially my writer friends) know that, so they just don't ask. When someone says, "Oh, be candid; tell me the truth!" they are as full of self-serving shit as Bush when he tells us the economy is "having a small downturn." Writers of any stripe go into this gig with their heart in their hands, and they're used to Mommy or The Spouse ooh'ing and ahh'ing over the wonderfulness. Loving as they may be, and worthy or kisses'n'hugs though they may be, YOU CANNOT TRUST THEM. They are blinkered by affection. When I taught writers' workshops (which no one will allow me to do any more) my stint--a day, a week, whatever--was spoken of as if it were the Plagues of Israel. Mean, nasty Harlan is coming, oooo ooga booga! Because I cut them no slack. All this "Oooo, you'll damage they wee self-respect if you is kwu-ell to thems," is academic PC bullshit. Bad is bad. Wrong is wrong. If one is hired and paid a wage to tell the li'l wannabes the truth, one is a poltroon and a thief, and lower then a litterbug, if one covers one's ass by avoiding the harsh tone. I have no idea how much of that pertains to you, but at least you're smart enough, and honest enough, to say the reviewer is a respectable talent himself. That is Grown Up Time, and you should be proud of feeling bludgeoned. It means you're a righteous responsible dude...though he may be right in what he said about your work. I cannot know that, but you can.
So what do I do, to get hard-hitting criticism, which I need as urgently as you do, or any other serious writer does? Well, the only way I could figure out to do it, was to ask a writer, a famous writer, a friend, who had asked me to read an upcoming novel he "was sending to his publisher" (a lie; he'd already sent it; so my comments were unnecessary), to read a piece I had just completed, a major piece. I had found his novel flawed from an early chapter onward. So seriously and idiotically and ineptly and amateurishly flawed that it made everything proceeding from that nexus invalid and stupid. And I told him so, to his face, over the kitchen table. He ignored what I said, of course, because he had dealt duplicitously with me by letting me believe I was looking at work he ACTUALLY wanted appraised at a high-pro level. Well, he didn't. It was already in the hands of the editot, the publisher, the copyeditor, the proofreader, and on and on...and not one of those assholes had been editor enough to spot a gap in the plot big enough to drive through three Peterbilts, side-by-side. It was published that way. Flawed, fucked, emptyheaded. And he is a GOOD writer, a VERY GOOD writer, perhaps one of the best working today. But he didn't want to know where he'd screwed the pooch: he wanted my approbation. Which I denied him.
He was the perfect person to evaluate MY major piece. I knew he wouldn't cut me any slack. And he found places in my story where I had to dig in and rewrite and make logical what wasn't. It was the best criticism I'd had in years.
I tried to hire two well-known critics a few years ago, to look at some current work, and tell me if I was on track or not. I paid them, and they tried their best, but the truth of it is that What I'm Doing is unlike most of what others are trying to do. And they were of no use to me, critically; though they tried their best and gave it a shot. But it was a lot like showing the Mayan Codex to a Cro-Magnon, asnd asking him to evaluate it. I realize this may be drifting off the point of answering your appeal, but geezus guy, sometimes you're just ahead of the curve. Nobody "gets" what you're about. I've been having that a LOT, a LOT, just a fuckin' large LOT with "Goodbye To All That," which not even the people who published it could figure out...if I was onto something singular, or if I was just out of my withered codger mind. Sometimes NOBODY can help you, and you ultimately have to trust yourself...that you knew what you were after, and you did the job properly.
That's one side. Read it cold. Let a few days pass. Forget you're going back to it. Go play piano. Hopscotch. Whatever. Then come back cold, sit down, read it objectively. If he was right, cop to it. If he wasn't...
SOMETIMES, my friend, you eat the bear, and SOMETIMES the bear eats you.
If he is, indeed, as reliable and wise as you say, well, he might've just had a bad day or eaten a bit of undercooked potato or had his head in another place.
You'll have to CRITICIZE the critic, James! YOU know what you were after; see if he "got it." If he did, look to your own patch to rectify your flaws. If he didn't, swallow it, suck it up, go back to work. Eventually, that's all there is: work...or stop working.
In the end, GREAT criticism is as rare as is GREAT writing of any kind.
I have no idea if the foregoing will make the swelling go down, but at least you know you're crying at someone who bears the same bruises.
Yr. Pal, Harlan