We now know more than we ever wanted to know about speaking truth to power. But what about speaking truth to other writers?
Part of my work is to critique manuscripts, and assessing those darlings can give me hives, gastric reflux and headache. What if I tell the truth?: “This story lacks conflict. What I see here is not a poem, but a confession and I am not a priest to grant absolution, these characters are cardboard, the theme of the essay is unidentifiable.” Fortunately, that rarely happens. But the child in me says, “Please, don’t hate me. Like me, like me, like me.”
Do critics such as Harold Bloom, Dana Gioia, and Helen Vendler care if other people like them? I suppose they feel secure in their judgment and know that I’m out here–anonymous, but engaged–relying on them to tell me the truth about a book, a poem, another writer! Even when the truth makes me squirm. What if they were to say bad things about my work? (Would that they know my work.)
Ah, there’s the knot in my shoelace. Every negative review or critique scrapes skin off the writer. The idea that any publicity is good: I question this idea. I don’t much care for Billy Collins’ latest book, The Rain in Portugal, and I doubt he would see any criticism I set loose in the world. But you never know. Recently I tweeted a compliment about W.S. Merwin’s Migration. And, whoa! The next day there was a “like” from The Merwin Conservancy. Liking what I like and saying so publicly is, I’ve decided, more helpful than whining and snarling about what I don’t care for. Or maybe I’m a thin-skinned coward operating on the theory that if I don’t say anything negative about you, you won’t send me to my room for a decade.