It made me think about the fact that, like most people who write for a living, I’ve churned out a little bit of everything that paid enough to help with the power bill and/or a new printer cartridge. It struck me that some of the most enjoyable assignments I’ve had were writing reviews of books, movies, and concerts. In fact I would have written them for free—which was a good thing, because this often turned out to be the case. I actually think I would enjoy being a professional critic. (OK, I know what my friends and family are thinking. But just bite your lip, please.)
It’s true I could never come near the level of movie reviews that Roger Ebert does. He’s my hero. And I’ve never come across a book reviewer as good as John Updike, when he was at his best. Come to think of it, I could never match the concert reviews done by my former reporting colleague Kathy Kemp when she worked at the Birmingham Post-Herald. I’ll never forget a piece she did about the double-bill at Boutwell Auditorium of the bands AC/DC and Ratt: “The opening chords of the show,” she wrote, “resembled what I’m accustomed to hearing after the phrase, ‘Gentlemen, start your engines!’”
And I understand that even good critics aren’t held in universal esteem—especially by the creators and fans of the stuff they might malign. One author famously wrote to a negative reviewer of his book: “Dear Sir: I am seated in the smallest room of my house. I have your column about my newest work in front of me. It is about to be behind me.”
And if one dishes out honest opinions, one must be ready to take them in return. I’ll never forget the thrill I felt when my first novel “The Shining Shining Path” came out and, in the early days of the Internet, I received an e-mail from a university’s letterpress printing instructor asking permission to use the book’s opening lines for a series of limited-edition lithographs featuring the work of Alabama authors.
This thrill lasted until about sundown, when I did an online search for my novel’s title and found that the same opening lines were quoted on a literary blog called “Turkey of the Week,” which existed to draw attention to what the blog’s creator considered “the most overblown, purple prose out there today.”
Some days (half-days, actually) you’re the windshield, some days etc.
It just comes with the territory. After one of Truman Capote’s books was particularly savaged by reviewers, a reporter asked Capote how that type of criticism made him feel. He answered with an old proverb: “The dogs bark, the caravan moves on.”
In fact, these mornings at daylight I brew some coffee and retreat to the ancient computer in the corner of our garage to write for a couple of hours on the first draft of a new book. Could you get your dogs to pipe down just a little, please? It would sure help.
Dale Short is a native of Walker County. His columns, books, photos, and radio features are available on his website carrolldaleshort.com. His weekly radio program “Music from Home” airs each Sunday at 6 pm on Oldies 101.5 and is archived afterward on his website.