On the necessity of the negative review

A few days ago I saw a post on a writer’s Facebook page that brought me up short. A writer was venting some steam about having received a bad review from another writer. Though this is never fun, he seemed to take particular umbrage at the fact that the writer of the review shared a publisher with him. The implication being that there is an obligation among writers in the same stable not to speak negatively of one another’s work. It’s a variation of Ronald Reagan’s “speak no evil” directive to Republicans on the campaign trail.

In the comments to this post, another writer made the following remark, referring to the bad feelings the review inspired: ” … this is a good example why it’s better to say nothing than post a negative review. Negative reviews do nobody any favours.” He went on to clarify his point: “What I mean is a bad review will only cause heartache to your subject, and headaches to you from your subject’s fans. It’s a no-win situation. Better to keep quiet instead. Speaking as an author, I’d far prefer people who didn’t like my work to not talk about it.”

There’s a certain degree of the tongue-in-cheek on display here, and it would be wrong to take everything said in this exchange too seriously. Furthermore, I have a friendly relationship with both of these writers online, and I respect them both enough to believe that their feelings on this matter are probably much more nuanced than these offhand statements would indicate. As writers, it’s safe to say that most of us would prefer people who don’t like our work to not talk about it. There’s nothing wrong with that. And the original poster was careful to say he was just letting off steam. Which is all well and good. Facebook tends to be ephemeral, and most of what we say there vanishes without so much as a ripple.

But the ideas that negative reviews are best left unwritten and that authors sharing a publisher owe an allegiance to one another were presented seriously. This mindset is nothing new, but it’s achieved a fresh virulence with the advent of the online culture. We’re all friends now. Or “friends,” according to Facebook and Google+ parlance. As writers tilling the same soil, we interact with each other almost daily. We see each other at conventions.  And because most of us are decent people who display good will and wish one another success, speaking publicly of our dissatisfaction with a colleague’s work seems a kind of betrayal.

While this approach may keep us from having awkward conversations with friends, it harms us as writers and undermines the seriousness of the genre. If we cannot speak to our failures as well as to our successes, then frankly we don’t deserve to be taken seriously.

Praise is good when warranted of course. It is also necessary: many of us have notoriously fragile egos. But to be silent when criticism is what’s warranted is at once a tacit endorsement of mediocrity and a disservice to a writer who might benefit from an honest and frank appraisal of the work. It is also a disservice to readers. Without a vigorous critical aesthetic, standards erode over time. The work is degraded.

Furthermore, honest criticism is an indication of respect for the work and the author. We have to deliver that respect, and receive it in good faith when it’s delivered to us. If we really believe in our own work, in its worth and viability, then we should not be afraid of criticism. If we want to become better writers, then we should welcome it. If we want our genre to be taken more seriously by the literary establishment, then we have to take it more seriously ourselves.

A real friendship can withstand a negative review. A good writer can absorb its lessons. A healthy literary community will foster the exchange of frank appraisal.

There are, of course, critics in the genre who do bring a rigorous standard to their criticism; it’s primarily the writers themselves who should raise their game in this regard.

I’m guilty here, no question. I’ve purposely steered away from writing about my colleagues’ work on this blog — good or bad — because I didn’t want to start down a path that could eventually ruffle feathers. It’s safer, and more pleasant, to be silent.

But it’s also weak and cowardly.   (Upon reflection, this sentence strikes me as unfair, and a bit harsh. Redacted.)

I’ve long had a love-hate relationship with the genre — horror in particular. I’ve thought about it a lot over the past year; it’s a friction that informs all of my work to date and will probably continue to do so for some time. At its worst, it’s adolescent hate fantasy or gore-lust, written without the slightest care or awareness of language or the actual measure of the human heart. When it’s at its best, though; what I love about it — its uncompromising nature, its emotional integrity, its astonishing capacity for beauty — I love absolutely, and can get in no equal measure from any other branch of literature.

It deserves to be taken seriously.

The collection has a home

The big news is that my short story collection has found a home at Small Beer Press. Its current title is Monsters of Heaven: stories, though that could always change between now and its publication date. Though it’s very early in the process still, I think a release sometime in 2013 is a pretty safe bet. The order of the contents are yet to be determined, but the stories to be included are “You Go Where It Takes You,” “The Monsters of Heaven,” “S.S.,” “North American Lake Monsters,” “The Crevasse,” “Wild Acre,” “Sunbleached,” “The Way Station,” and “The Good Husband.”

That Small Beer Press has picked it up is both surprising and immensely gratifying to me. To be honest, I didn’t think they’d want anything this dark. At this point I should know better than to assume I know what editors will want, and I was thrilled to be proven wrong. That I will soon share a publisher with Maureen F. McHugh, Karen Joy Fowler, Liz Hand, and of course Kelly Link herself seems too good to be true. Small Beer is truly the very best place for this collection to land.

These stories represent an era of my life as a writer, and I find it very fitting that the book came together just after I finished “The Good Husband.” That particular story is very dark — perhaps more so than any other story in there — and when I finished it I felt as though I had come to the end of a particular stage of my development. What that means, exactly, I don’t know. But my internal weather feels different. I’m as curious as anyone to see what comes next.

There are things already in the works, of course. Contrary to what the evidence will suggest, I have not abandoned “The Cannibal Priests of New England.” It will soon be relaunched, with a new and reinvigorated face. I’m working on the details for that right now. I’m also working on a series of essays about being a single dad; you’ll likely see a lot of that worked out here on the blog. I tend to use those posts as blueprints for longer pieces. And, finally, I’m working on two novels at once. I don’t know how long that will remain true, but I’ve set myself a modest daily goal for each, and they’re different enough in tone and intent that they don’t bump into each other in my head. They’re both stories I’ve been wanting to write for a couple years now. I feel like I’m finally ready to write them they way they deserve to be written.

This should be a busy year.

Three notes

1. I answered a few brief questions over at the website dedicated to Creatures, a retrospective anthology collecting great monster stories from the past 30 years. I’m pleased and honored to have “The Monsters of Heaven” included alongside contributions from Jim Shepard, Clive Barker, Kelly Link, Laird Barron, and many others.

Here’s one of the questions, to give you an idea of what they’re like:

If you could be a monster, which one would you choose, and why?

I would be a werewolf. That may not be very original, but I don’t care. Werewolves have always been my favorite monster. I think they’re terrifying, for one. I don’t see them as the furry-faced muppets of the old Universal horror movies; I see them as great, bristle-haired beasts, their fur matted and filthy, their breath rank, their muscles trembling with rage. I love the idea of surrendering to rage, of giving in to the violent dream. So much of life is repression. So many words bitten off before we can speak them, so many deserving necks left unthrottled. The idea of letting that rage run rampant, of feeling bones break between my teeth, is a little intoxicating.

2. Here is a passage from an essay by Rachel Yoder called “Awkward Walks With Unavailable Men,” which can be found in the current issue of The Sun. It’s beautiful, and I think you should read it.

One summer morning when I was five, I walked into my grandmother’s bedroom unannounced. She was sitting in her spindle-backed chair, looking out the window at the cornfields. She had just taken down her hair.

Her hair. My God. You could write a whole bible about that hair. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen: my Mennonite grandmother’s pearl-white hair hanging down her back, unspooled and luminescent, long like a girl’s, with the fire of the sun in it.

Before she saw me, I stood there for a moment inside a thin skin of knowing and mystery, inside something I could not comprehend other than to think, Pretty, other than to think, I want. Oh, her silver-white hair. That beauty could be both so old and so innocent, so pure and so pulsing, so urgent it made me want to touch, to look, to feel, and then to run away and hide. That beauty was her hair and the sun and the cornfields but also the bed and her body, her skin and lips. That beauty was my grandmother then, but also my grandmother before, on the day she’d given birth; at her wedding; as a small girl. That beauty would die. That beauty began to slip away the moment she turned and looked at me.

3. I found this song online the other day. Royal Fingerbowl was a big deal in New Orleans for about five minutes, recording a small handful of albums, before the frontman Alex McMurray went on to a host of other musical projects. But man, this band knew that town. Their first record, Happy Birthday, Sabo, is the city distilled. This song recalls to me many a bleary morning, with the sky breaking into light, and the warm beauty of the recent night, of women and of friends, lingering like a good dream which turned out to be true.

Coffee and rain

It’s a little past nine on a Tuesday morning. It’s raining here: a cool, light mist. I’m sitting outside, beneath a small overhang, at the little cafe a block from my apartment building with a cup of coffee and the computer I’m writing this on. Across the street a freight train just rolled by; behind it the trees are beginning to show their autumn colors.

Coffee and rain. An absolute good.

For the first time in two years I feel a sense of quietude inside. Some long-absent peace is returning. It’s such a strange feeling I almost don’t recognize it, or know what to do with it.

But I do, of course, know what to do with it.

When I came here six years ago, after the divorce, I stopped moving somewhere inside. I was stunned to inaction. I felt the world had an obligation to right itself, and I waited passively for it to do so. I cherished my wounds like jewels.

But I think I have finally exhausted myself. Being that man gets you nothing. It makes life needlessly difficult for yourself, your family, and the people who love you. It drives people away. It calcifies you; it turns you into living bone.

And so I’ve been doing a lot of re-evaluation. I start with only two givens: I’m a father, and I’m a writer. My daughter is eleven, in a new and challenging school, and some of the issues attendant to those facts are already making themselves felt. Cliques she feels left out of, insecurities stemming from being challenged academically for the first time in her life, social awkwardness both generalized and specific. She needs her father to be entirely engaged.

With writing, I’m examining my own uneasy relationship with genre fiction. What it is that I love so much about it, and why it is that, when I want a visceral reading experience — when I want to be hit in the heart — I almost never turn to it. The fiction that moves me and stays with me is almost never genre fiction. I’m examining, too, my deep and abiding love for personal essays (what is now being called, with the dreadful, pallid literalness that can only have come from an MFA program, “creative nonfiction”); they’ve given me some of my most rewarding experiences as a reader, and I find the writing of them to be easy and cathartic. So the question of what kind of writer I am yet to be is very much in play.

Beyond that, and the small handful of people who are dear to me, nothing is a given anymore. It’s a liberating feeling, and one so easy to arrive at, after all this time, that I am more than a little dismayed. You just take everything you have, put it in a boat, and push it away from shore. Then you walk away.

The coffee is still hot. The rain is soft and cool and beautiful. The day is open.