Writer Vs. Reviewer . . .

It is scarcely the province of an author to refute the arguments of his censors and vindicate his own productions, but I may be allowed to make here a few observations with which I would have prefaced the first edition had I foreseen that the necessity of such precautions against the misapprehensions of those who would read it with a prejudiced mind or be content to judge it by a hasty glance.

In other words: “If I’d known you critics were going to slamdunk my novel, I would have put in a foreword to make what I was doing crystal clear.”

Authors and playwrights used to talk back to critics and reviewers in newspapers, magazines, pamphlets and broadsides,  often in highly entertaining fulminations. These, in fact, were a staple of English printed matter in the eighteenth century. Literary feuds were popular and often made cash on the barrel head for printers.

At the ripe old age of twenty-two, Alexander Pope wrote a very long poem about who could be a critic, and how critics ought to behave. He stipulated that the only real critics could be other creators (a sure recipe for disaster, besides being logically iffy: some of the ancients he lauded for their criticism weren’t poets, and he knew it) but his advice that critics needed a “Knowledge both of Books and Humankind,” and “Who to a Friend his Faults can freely show/And gladly praise the Merit of a Foe” isn’t a bad rubric.

But that didn’t mollify fading wit John Dennis. His pamphlet scorning the poem didn’t stop with tearing to bits Pope’s shakier points and fumbles in poetic form. He then went after Pope’s genealogy, his religion, his political beliefs, and finished up with a nuclear attack on Pope’s disabilities in such a thoroughly nasty way that Dennis’s one-time fame as poet, playwright and critics has pretty much dwindled to his only being known as the crank who called Pope a hunchback’d Toad.

Meanwhile, both Pope and Dennis sold more copies than anything else they’d written so far. Establishing early on there ain’t no such thing as bad publicity.

The Victorians were more decorous (though in some cases, not much more.)

It isn’t surprising that while the early Victorians were busy inventing the modern novel, they were also busy exploring how the author interacts with the public outside of the fictional pages of a book. Letters and memoirs can be revealing, but there is a third form equally so: the author preface to later editions.

The quote up at the top was written by Anne Bronte in 1848, for the second edition of her novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, in which she takes a whack at the critics, then unflinchingly depicts the violently unromantic, physically and emotionally harrowing cost of living with an angry alcoholic.

There is no Byronic romance here, though the initial impulse for the character might have arisen from her siblings’ shared fascination for the Byronic villainous hero, as we find in Wuthering HeightsJane Eyre, and their juvenilia.

I suspect modern readers, vaguely aware of Anne, Charlotte, and Emily Bronte, dismiss them as a bunch of Victorian spinsters from a parsonage, writing twee twaddle, unaware that these three took the English publishing scene by storm. Critics howled with repulsed fascination about the coarseness, indelicacy, immorality, and gritty realism in their books. And that was before the news got around that they were women.

I wish to tell the truth, for truth always conveys its own moral to those who are able to receive it. . . . When we have to do with vice and vicious characters, I maintain it is better to depict them as they really are than as they would wish to appear.

Anne justifies her choices, and then goes on to talk about the moral duty of fiction, also taking a swipe at the critics who dared to cavil at the excruciating detail of a governess’s life among savages with a pretense of civility, depicted in Agnes Grey. Anne had been writing from personal experience. It showed.

She goes on to defend the separate works of the sisters:

Respecting the author’s identity, I would have it to be distinctly understood that Acton Bell is neither Currer nor Ellis Bell . . .  as to whether the name be real or fictitious, it cannot greatly signify to those who know him only by his works. As little, I should think, can it matter whether the writers so designated is a man or a woman … In my own mind, I am satisfied that if a book is a good one, it is so whatever the sex of the author may be.

She then makes a sly remark that seems to corroborate her being in fact male (because as everyone knows, that extra chromosome guarantees superior veracity) but then goes on to firmly state:

 All novels are or should be written for both men and women to read, and I am at a loss to conceive how a man should permit himself to write anything that would be really disgraceful to a woman, or why a woman should be censured for writing anything that would be proper and becoming for a man.

This, in more decorous form, echoed Aphra Behn’s ferocious preface to the print version of her play The Dutch Lover, written in the 1670s, in which she rails against the hypocritical pontifications that only permit male writers to express amorousness in their poetry and plays, while women are the targets. Why shouldn’t women get their innings in the fictional battle of the sexes?

When one considers all those lists going around the Internet right now, exhorting people to read female writers, and complaints about females being short-sheeted in awards, advances, and publicity, it’s clear that gender parity still has a long way to go, however much everything else has changed.

Questions of gender aside, the entirely human hunger for the acknowledgement of the value of one’s work, whatever that work may be, has prompted a lot of friction between the need to publicize one’s efforts, and the universal weariness of a public constantly bombarded by PR.

I’m not drawing any conclusions here— I suspect the only answer is “Whatever nets success!”and that is going to change as fast as fashion—but it amazes and amuses me to pick up a very old book and discover an author struggling with the expectations and reactions that are not, after all, so new.

But given today’s immediate access–even expectations that writers are now supposed to be performers in their persons, too, with gussied up publicity photos, blogs, newsletters, Twitter/Facebook and the like, what do you think authors should do about responding to public discussions of their work, reviews, and the like?






Writer Vs. Reviewer . . . — 2 Comments

  1. In the days before the instant gratification of digital media, people were required to write out their thoughts—and thus, presumably, think about them in the process before they aired them in the public sphere. In spite of any and all excesses of insult, there was still a space for reflection beforehand. At least the ancients were a bit more eloquent and inventive with their invective.

    In the modern sphere, where everything a person says can and will be used against them in the court of the twitterverse, I think sometimes the less an author says, the better. We have entered the era of over-share, and so much of the so-called interaction is inane at best and toxic at worst. Wading into public discussions of one’s work—unless it it to address major issues, like personal defamation or accusations of plagiarism, for instance—simply leads to psychological exhaustion and keeps an author from what they are supposed to be doing, which is writing.

    I like that authors are willing to share aspects of their private lives with their readers on various social media platforms, but I don’t think it should be a requirement or even an expectation that they engage with the public in this way. I may read and even own an author’s works—I don’t own the author themselves.

  2. True! There is increasing tension for authors to do their own publicity, to “brand” themselves, to share their personal lives in newsletters, etc. Advice that makes introverts cringe. It’s difficult to know where the boundaries are, especially as net culture is still evolving.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.