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From the Wire: Book Critic Apologizes For His “Bitter” Reviews

From the Wire: Book Critic Apologizes For His "Bitter" Reviews

The stereotype about critics is that they’re all just failed artists. Those who can’t do teach; those who can’t teach criticize. It comes up a lot; it was even mentioned in the panel discussion Criticwire held this week at the Digital Hollywood Summit. It’s a standard attack deployed by artists when they want to go after a critic who doesn’t like their work — “I made something. You wish you could do what I do.” 

I tend to think it’s a stereotype that’s grossly exaggerated. I don’t have any screenplays lying around I want to get financed; I don’t hold aspirations of parlaying Criticwire, Truffaut-style, into my own “The 400 Blows” (although if I did, I would probably call it “The 400 Blows, But In New Jersey”). Plus I tend to hate stereotypes in general. But there’s a little truth to this one — at least according to a new article at Salon by Alexander Nazaryan, who knows at least one struggling artist turned critic: himself.

Nazaryan has tried for years to publish his first book, but has never been able to fully make the leap from journalist to novelist. Along the way, he’s reviewed other writers’ work, and, he now admits, he vented his frustration about his own career into his writing about others. As a result, he now wants to apologize to the authors he covered:

“The reviews I wrote came to bear a stench of bitterness, none more so than one I wrote for the Village Voice in 2008 in which I took on two debut novelists, Keith Gessen and Nathaniel Rich. After comparing them to James Joyce and Ralph Ellison, I proceed to snidely savage their work. It is true: I did not like their novels. But my dislike was set aflame by jealousy of young men whose profiles were similar to mine and who had managed to do what I had not. I remain more embarrassed by that piece than by any other. Keith, Nate: I am sorry.”

Nazaryan also talks about his intense passion for the novel, and how he’s refused to give up his dream after years of struggle. That’s admirable, as is his candor, although I don’t know how much better it will make Gessen and Rich feel years after the fact. Let this serve as a cautionary tale: if you’re pissed off by your own hardships as an artist, maybe you’re not in the best mental place to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of art. Leave the criticizing to the critics, the ones who are doing it because they feel the sort of passion for it that Nazaryan feels for novels. Those who can’t criticize fairly, do something else.

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