Columns > Published on January 13th, 2012

ATTACKED! One Writer's Response to Criticism

It’s not all fan mail and beer, my dear. There’s a foul fraction of writers – I among them - who read what other writers sweat blood to create and by some miracle manage to publish, and not only react as if we’ve been poisoned by bad crab meat, but then insist on farting our responses into print.  We are a nasty crew - part junkie, part cannibal. The objects of our essentially erotic wrath are those whose work we despise and those who are simply assholes who deserve to be publicly disgraced. I’ve done it, I feel no shame, and I’ll do it again. Like kinky sex or good weed, it feels too good to stop.

But as every cannibal knows, s/he, too, can be on the end of somebody else’s fork. Perhaps needless to say, it’s a very different experience, but there’s still a perverse pleasure in it. Sadism is one thing, masochism quite another. The sadist needs readers, the masochist only himself.  

A few years ago I learned inadvertently that some little person out there in the dark had written a book in which he made it Windex clear that he hated me and everything I stood for. The acquaintance who mentioned it simply tried to chat with me about something he assumed I already knew, but after he watched my painfully shocked smirk grow more grotesque with every detail he described, he changed the subject. That’s when I launched a harangue that sent him hurrying toward the cheese platter.

When this acquaintance said, “Craig Seligman doesn’t like you one bit,” I wish I could have said something on the order of, “’Seligman’, you say? ’Seligman?’ I know no ‘Seligman.’"

But I knew exactly who this "Seligman" creature was. We’d met at a writers party some years back. A mutual friend introduced us. This friend doesn’t drink often, but it was a holiday party and he was at least two sheets to the wind, so he pushed it. “Craig’s a friend of Pauline Kael!” he loudly announced to several bystanders and me. “Ed wrote a long piece about Kael’s homophobia! You two have a lot to talk about!”

I was mortified.  Yes, I hate Kael’s work and have hated it for many years. Her smug, know-it-all put-downs of gay men, gay directors, gay themes, gay anything. Her tic-y prose style. Above all, her taste in films. (Evidence: her absurd rave for Nasty Habits, possibly the worst comedy ever to disgrace the silver screen. More evidence: the awful Citizen Kane Book, which amusingly turned out to be largely plagiarized.) When I was just starting out as a writer I wrote a scorching essay about her for The New York Native in that GLBT paper’s glory days; I later revised it for a book of essays in honor of Andrew Sarris. But I certainly had no interest in talking about my contempt for her with one of her friends, and I said so. As my mother would tell you, I wasn’t brought up that way.

The Seligman person, meanwhile, was shaking his head and looking at a spot on the rug. “A very wrongheaded article. Very wrongheaded.”

“It’s nice to meet you,” I offered.

“Very wrongheaded,” Craig Seligman repeated gravely, as though someone had proposed the reimposition of slavery, then he turned on his heels and sped away, which I found both hilarious and strikingly rude.

Craig Seligman, of course, went on to write the book in question. It was about (who else?) Pauline Kael, with Susan Sontag thrown in to provide earnestness, and it bore the ludicrous title Sontag and Kael: Opposites Attract Me.

The only person who could get away with using the word “Me” in a book title was Katharine Hepburn, and even then it was a bit much. As far as book titles are concerned, ...Me is as self-aggrandizing as it gets. It’s as bad as Kael/Sontag/Seligman. Or I, Critic.

After the innocent bystander brought …Me to my attention, two questions nipped at my mind like a rabid toy dachshund: What did that little shit say about me, and should I respond? At other times I was eerily placid. Earlier in my career I fed on dark rage; it animated my writing. The Kael piece for the Native really launched my career. The film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, whom I greatly respect, admiringly called it “invective.” But now? Did I really care? As it turned out, I didn’t. Avoiding …Me was easy. I never saw it in a bookstore, the hundred or so copies they printed evidently having been snapped up by other sycophants or returned to the publisher for shredding. And nobody but the fellow who mentioned it to me ever brought it up with me again.

I forgot about it – that is, until my next book was on its way to publication. In the run-up to the release of Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis, and despite my better judgment, I began to believe in a kind of Seligman is Satan scenario and nervously skimmed the New York Times Book Review to see if he was among its current stable of critics. I envisioned his first sentence enlarged to marquee lettering: “Ed Sikov’s wrongheaded biography of Bette Davis….” Paranoia reigned. I composed biting retort letters in my head, which wasn’t easy because nobody, least of all Craig Seligman, had reviewed the book yet. More than once I got myself into such a twirl I couldn’t sleep.

When the secretive folks at the Book Review finally told my publisher, Henry Holt & Co., that they’d assigned the review to none other than Rex Reed, I burst out laughing. Reed’s review was not terribly positive, but I didn’t much care; he’s now better known for being arrested for petty larceny after removing the plastic wrapping from several CDs at the old Tower Records, stuffing them in his pockets, and attempting to leave the store than for anything he’s ever written. As for Craig Seligman? I have no idea, nor do I care.

Here are a few tips for aspiring writers, newly published writers, writers who hang on every word written about them, or those (like me) who go through little suburbs-of-Hell from time to time worrying about what might be printed about them:

  • It’s bad for your mental health to obsess about what others might write about you. If you need love, hire a prostitute. If your secret desire is to be humiliated, hire a prostitute.
  • Never title a book using the word Me unless you have won four Oscars.
  • If you ever find yourself writing to please the phantom book reviewers you conjure up in your head, you’re missing the whole point of writing, which is to express your ideas, not someone else’s. Don’t aim to please anyone but yourself and (if you have one) your ideal reader – a real person you admire, a friend, or a fictional creation of your own. They, not reviewers, are who you should write for. Edmund White once acknowledged that his ideal reader was Vera Nabokov, the brilliant novelist’s brilliant wife. I wrote one book specifically for my father. (Luckily for me, Dad liked it. He was a tough audience.) These ideal readers keep us on track. Writing for critics, on the other hand, leads to jumping the track and wrecking.
  • Never accept an invitation to a writers party.
  • Never, ever read reviews. Instead, adhere strictly to the advice given to me by Edward Hibbert, the actor (Television: Frasier; Broadway: Noises Off, Curtains, The Drowsy Chaperone; Films: The Prestige, First Wives Club) and literary agent (Chuck Palahniuk, Christopher Bram, and me): “No good review is ever good enough, and every bad review is unbearable. Don’t read any of them.”

About the author

Ed Sikov is the author of 7 books about films and filmmakers, including On Sunset Boulevard:; The Life and Times of Billy Wilder; Mr. Strangelove: A Biography of Peter Sellers; and Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis.

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