By Glenn LaFantasie
Authors prepare themselves for negative reviews of their books, but when critics have bad things to say about one’s writing there is no girding of the loins that really seems to work. An unfavorable review hurts, no matter what authors say to the contrary. Some writers, though, dismiss critics and criticism more easily than others. Ernest Hemingway, so well known for his terse writing, effectively cut to the quick. “Professional critics,” he said, “make me sick.”
These days, I am feeling a bit of pique myself. An anonymous reviewer in Publisher’s Weekly (a.k.a PW), the publishing rag where every author hopes to get favorable notice, wrote some pretty harsh things about my latest book, Gettysburg Requiem. It is a biography of William Calvin Oates, a Confederate colonel who survived the Civil War to become an Alabama congressman and governor. As a man of his time and place, Oates held racial opinions that relegated African Americans to a position of biological inferiority and social subservience to whites. Besides being a racial bigot, he remained emotionally distant from the women in his life, fathered a mulatto child, embraced xenophobia, and believed that the poor—white and black—deserved to be exploited for their labor. In telling Oates’s story, I felt it was important for me to reveal his prejudices in detail and to portray, as best I could, his complexity as a human being.
The PW reviewer saw this differently. “LaFantasie spends too much time,” he (or she— but for the sake of simplicity, let’s assume it was a “he”) wrote, “reminding readers that abusing blacks, oppressing women and exploiting the poor were acceptable in Oates’s circle, and he is positively clairvoyant in his ability to read Oates’s thoughts and describe his emotional reactions.”
Ouch. Let me address the second dig first. I possess no crystal ball or tarot cards. My insights about Oates came not from any extra-sensory perception; they came, in fact, from historical documents that I cite in rather abundant endnotes. As a biographer, I can claim, like the boy in M. Night Shyamalan’s film “The Sixth Sense,” to see dead people, but they don’t appear to me as apparitions, and they don’t talk to me. My understanding of Oates is the result of hours spent among dusty records and faded manuscripts, pulling words out of texts that are often written in nearly indecipherable handwriting or are buried in yellowing stacks of newspapers. My powers are not beyond those of mortal men. Sorry to disappoint.
The reviewer’s other comments are far more difficult to deal with. He makes it sound like I spend pages and pages apologizing for Oates’s unsavory opinions of blacks, women, and the poor. I can’t find any such apology in my book. In fact, I try very hard to show Oates, warts and all, without apologizing for him. Is it possible that I failed so miserably at what I set out to do?
For the record, I suppose it is possible. Gordon S. Wood, the Pulitzer-Prize winning historian, is fond of pointing out that authors are the last ones to realize that their books belong to their readers, not to themselves. Readers decide whether a book is good or bad; they also decide the author’s meaning, even if the writer has set out to do something completely different from what readers discern. Living or dead, the author has little to say about how readers perceive his works. Sometimes readers are generous. “An able reader,” wrote Michel de Montaigne, the fourteenth-century French essayist, “often discovers in other people’s writings perfections beyond those that the author put in or perceived, and lends them richer meanings and aspects.”
The PW reviewer lacked such generosity. In fact, not only did he label me an apologist for a bigoted white Southerner of the nineteenth century but he also insinuated that I personally hold those same views. Every author has brilliant rebuttals to unfavorable reviews, especially those incisive come-back lines that echo so endlessly in one’s head. But how does one reply to insinuation, especially one that strongly suggests you’re a bigot? A Chinese proverb warns that an honest person does not resort to insinuation. But I am not willing to dismiss the PW reviewer as dishonest. That seems too easy (and too arbitrary).
To make matters worse, the reviewer also asserted that readers of my book will conclude that Oates deserves his obscurity, but then he added—in what I consider to be an utterly astounding statement—that I have written an “engaging biography.” I can’t reconcile those statements. If the reviewer found my book so engaging, how could he still conclude that my subject deserves to be—and to remain—obscure?
So books not only belong to their readers, they also belong to their reviewers. Undoubtedly that’s why authors have so many nasty things to say about critics. Take, for instance, Samuel Butler, the British author. “Critics generally come to be critics not by reason of their fitness for this,” he wrote, “but of their unfitness for anything else.” Of critics, Eugene O’Neill said: “I love every bone in their heads.” To aspiring writers, Brenda Ueland, the author of If You Want to Write (1938), used to say: “Mentally (at least three or four times a day) thumb your nose at all know-it-alls, jeerers, critics, doubters.” That’s good advice for the strong of heart, but in my case, Ueland’s recommended act of defiance doesn’t help much. I don’t even have a name, let alone a face, to which I might direct my carefully placed thumb on nose.
It seems likely the PW review will bother me for a long time. My thin skin has already let it penetrate (or else I probably wouldn’t be writing this). I can, however, take some comfort in the words of Joyce Carol Oates. “Critics,” she says, “sometimes appear to be addressing themselves to works other than those I remember writing.” So I am not alone. But the final word must belong to William Saroyan. In response to a critic who panned one of his plays, Saroyan said with eloquent simplicity: “One of us is obviously mistaken.” Good call.
Glenn W. LaFantasie, the Frockt Family Professor of Civil War History at Western Kentucky University, is the author of Gettysburg Requiem: The Life and Lost Causes of Confederate Colonel William C. Oates. Be sure to read his other essays on our blog, Hearing History’s Requiem and Our Distant Civil War.