In “The Blue Cross,” a 1911 short story about a canny detective and a wily crook, G.K. Chesterton serves up a nifty analogy: “The criminal is the creative artist; the detective only the critic.” Like so much of Chesterton’s work, that line first made me smile. Then it made me think.
In fact, it made me think entirely too much about a subject I’d come to dread: the difference between writing fiction and critiquing it, between participant and onlooker, between creator and critic. When I came across Chesterton’s story in an anthology I’d unearthed in a used bookstore and purchased for 50 cents—the book was so old that the dust jacket disintegrated at first touch, like a vampire at sunrise—it made me stop in my reading-tracks. If you re-read the line I quoted at the outset, you will note Chesterton’s deft insertion of the word “only”—only the critic. A lesser status is definitely implied. And Chesterton—a writer of marvelous mysteries as well as an eloquently incisive literary critic and biographer—ought to know.
For a dozen years, until the fall of 2012, I was a critic at the Chicago Tribune. I wrote a weekly literary column, along with book reviews and cultural essays. I loved my job. With each new shipment of hot-off-the-press volumes stacked to beguiling heights in the newspaper’s windowless but somehow never depressing book room, my heartbeat accelerated; I relished working my way through the endless piles with their sumptuously beautiful covers, searching for unknown gems. I adored writing about books and literary culture. I looked forward to the constant feedback I received from readers, readers who shared my conviction that Chicago is one of the world’s great literary cities.
But as much as I appreciated my job as a critic, I was aware, in the back of my mind, of the distracting presence of a small tendril of dissatisfaction, unfurling just a tiny bit more each day. Because my original ambition had been quite different: I had dreamed of being a writer, not a critic. I wanted to produce my own books not evaluate other people’s books.
As a 10-year-old growing up in Huntington, West Virginia, I’d hoarded old notebooks and stubs of pencils and, when nobody was looking, huddled in a far corner of the living room and wrote my own mystery series, one that featured a cool, resourceful detective named Christopher Lee Carson. His adventures had titles such as “The Clue of the Card Tip” and “The Clue of the Caller’s Whistle.” I penned—or penciled, to be strictly accurate—science fiction tales as well and the occasional homemade comic book.
Once I grew up and faced the depressing necessity of getting a paying job, that job turned out to be journalism. I had eagerly read biographies of authors—Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, Katherine Anne Porter, Thornton Wilder—who used journalism as a springboard into fiction writing, and thus it seemed promising. Newspaper work offered glimpses into lives other than one’s own, and it taught you how to write amid distractions. Through an unlikely series of serendipitous twists and odd turns, I ended up at the Tribune. And somewhere along the way, the profession I had always regarded as a temporary stop-gap, a way station, an interlude, became a career. My career.
Last August I published my first adult fiction novel, a mystery titled “A Killing in the Hills” (Minotaur), the first in a series featuring a single mother who returns to her West Virginia hometown to combat the scourge of prescription drug abuse. And then, with trepidation but also with an ever hopeful heart, I sat back to await the reviews. After having written about other people’s books for so long, now I was the one whose book would be written about.
Perhaps, at this point, you are expecting to hear that my novel was critically savaged and that the most important lesson I learned was to respect writers’ tender feelings in my future reviews and to resist the flinging-about of clever putdowns in lieu of thoughtful analysis.
That’s not what happened. A Killing in the Hills garnered starred reviews from all four major reviewing services—Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, and Booklist—and the evaluations in newspapers and magazines were, for the most part, fair, thorough, and gracefully written. I’ve been very pleased.
The lesson was something else entirely, a lesson that may sound trivial, but isn’t. For years, I had ridiculed the notion of ‘spoiler alerts’ in book, movie and TV reviews. I concurred with critic Boyd Tonkin of the British newspaper The Independent, who recently declared in his review of a new Ian Rankin mystery: “Any work’s dependence on suspense and surprise might mark it as second-rate,” adding that “the routine shielding of vital information has served to inhibit open discussion and lower critical standards.”
Then I wrote a novel, one with several hairpin turns—and not just because it’s set in the mountains of West Virginia. To my frustration and disappointment, a few spoilsports revealed these surprises, one by one, in ‘reviews’ that were mere plot summaries. I’d wanted my readers to be entertained; a novel, like life, ought to contain a few elements that you just don’t see coming. And these killjoys had robbed my readers of the simple pleasure of a jolt of surprise.
Aside from laziness—it’s far easier to write a plot summary than to engage with the book and write a genuine critique—why do some critics give away the goods? Hubris, I think, is a big part of it. I know from experience that the foremost temptation for critics is to believe they are not ‘just’ readers, that they are the creative equal of those whose works they judge. This isn’t to say that critics are egomaniacs (although some certainly are); it is to acknowledge the great challenge of maintaining a careful balance between writing with authority and confidence—and not doing what my West Virginia relatives call “rising above your raising”; i.e., getting the big head. To be assured but not arrogant, to be passionate but not pigheaded, is a tricky business.
What may cure this annoying minority of critics who write reviews that read more like high school book reports is—perversely—the same entity that threatens to destroy criticism as a profession: the Internet. The proliferation of online reviews—and the increasing quality thereof—has been steadily chipping away at the hegemony of the so-called establishment critic. And competition is a terrific taskmaster. Panic is a highly effective fuel. If readers get ticked off, they have lots of other choices these days.
Yet the initial response of many newspaper arts editors to the challenge posed by the Internet consisted of little more than false bravado and ignorance-based disdain. Had these editors understood earlier just how online reviews would upend the traditional relationship between audiences and the creative products that people want to know about, the current dismal plight of newspapers might be—if not exactly rosy—then at least not quite so dire. In the present environment, where the best and freshest and most intriguing reviews often can be found in blogs, no newspaper critic should harbor any illusions about her or his indispensability.
Nowadays I teach and write novels full time, but I still supply the occasional book review to the Tribune and other publications. Indeed, many of my literary idols also found themselves going back and forth betwixt journalism and fiction. Some of our best novelists were—and are—also some of our best critics, such as Virginia Woolf, John Updike, Iris Murdoch, Robertson Davies, John Banville, Cynthia Ozick, Thomas Mallon, Joyce Carol Oates, and Zadie Smith.
Should every book critic publish a book, in order to know what it’s like on the other side? Well, no. No more than every sportswriter ought to try out for the New York Yankees. I do believe, however, that it might behoove critics to look up from their laptops every now and again to remind themselves that works of art have lives independent of critics. Movie critics should see movies outside of advance screenings and film festivals; they should stop by the multiplex on summer weekends. Book critics should hang out in bookstores. Art critics should wander through galleries on their lunch hours—not just during wine-and-cheese receptions for high-dollar donors.
Publishing a novel, I like to think, has made me a better book critic. Perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise; as Chesterton himself would hasten to remind us, hooking a chubby thumb in his vest pocket and lifting a bushy eyebrow, crooks make the best detectives.
Julia Keller, a 1998 Nieman Fellow, teaches writing at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.