Friday, July 17, 2015

Criticizing the critics

Alfred Kazin
If critics often have harsh things to say about writers, writers can be just as harsh in their criticism of critics. Sometimes more so. Paul Hendrickson writes in Hemingway's Boat that noted literary critic Alfred Kazin, writing in The New Yorker, said of Ernest Hemingway's new book, Across the River and into the Trees, "(I)t is hard to say what one feels most in reading this book -- pity, embarrassment that so fine and honest a writer can make such a travesty of himself, or amazement that a man can render so marvelously the beauty of the natural world and yet be so vulgar..." In a letter to Harold Ross of The New Yorker, a letter which may never have actually been mailed, Hemingway wrote, "Please TELL KAZIN (if that is his real name) TO GO HANG HIMSELF (Will Furnish Worn Out Rope From the Boat)."

Well, that was Hemingway for you. His comments about other writers and their work could be crueler than anything critics might have written. About James Jones, author of From Here to Eternity, he wrote in a letter to publisher Charles Scribner, "I hope he kills himself as soon as it does not damage his or your sales." Of Thomas Wolfe, he wrote, "Tom Wolfe was a one book boy and a glandular giant with the brains and the guts of three mice." Of F. Scott Fitzgerald, he said, "Scott was a rummy and a liar and dishonest about money." To his credit, at least, these comments were written to third parties and not published in The New Yorker.

Jon Winokur collects some comments from writers about critics in his book Writers on Writing. Here is a sampling:

A critic is a gong at a railroad crossing clanging loudly and vainly as the train goes by. -- Christopher Morley

To literary critics a book is assumed to be guilty until it proves itself innocent. -- Nelson Algren

Critics sometimes appear to be addressing themselves to workers other than those I remember writing. -- Joyce Carol Oates

Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamppost what it feels about dogs. -- John Osborne

Criticism is a study by which men grow important and formidable at very small expense. -- Samuel Johnson

Writing criticism is to writing fiction and poetry as hugging the shore is to sailing the open sea. -- John Updike

Why did all these giants descend on me and my little stories? I wasn't doing anything of national import. All I was trying to do was entertain the public and make a buck. -- Mickey Spillane

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