A famous American novelist once riveted the attention of a Toronto dinner party by revealing his favourite revenge fantasy. He explained, in all seriousness, that he was hoping to meet at some literary gathering a certain English critic who had panned his books. When the chance arose, he would insult the man viciously enough to induce a heart attack. In his fantasy, which he described with relish, the critic dropped dead on the spot.
This outpouring of sharply focused hatred was a grotesque exaggeration of what many feel when their work is criticized. Most of us have noticed that negative reviews are remembered five times as long as positive reviews and have 10 times the emotional effect. Moreover, they do not sit idly in the minds of persons reviewed. After years of marinating in the juices of resentment, they grow more pungent and powerful, acquiring an extravagant intensity.
Perhaps a tirade like the one at that dinner party inspired John Updike's story, "Bech Noir," in the June 8 issue of The New Yorker. Henry Bech is a fictional novelist whose life Updike has explored in two collections, Bech: A Book (1970), and Bech is Back (1982). He's a hard case, psychologically. His authorial egomania has congealed into a self-consciousness so obsessive that he worries more about his place in literature than about what he's supposed to be writing. This has created chronic writer's block, so that Bech (like J.D. Salinger) is better known for the books he hasn't written than for those he has. His block at one point grew particularly acute: he discovered he could no longer write his name.
"Bech Noir" is a chapter from the third book in the series, Bech at Bay, to be published this autumn. It describes Bech's new hobby, homicidal vengeance. Always a champion grievance-collector, he believes he has suffered a lifetime's provocation at the hands of critics. One day the New York Times runs the obituary of a critic who disliked his work. The death of this long-ago enemy (a "smug, know-it-all son of a bitch") covers Bech's ancient heart with "a creamy satisfaction." To recreate that pleasure, he sets out to murder his old critics--but with great ingenuity, from a distance, so that he can never be detected.
Updike assumes we will understand why Bech feels so strongly on this matter. There are those who say criticism hurts worst when it is most accurate (having sometimes read dismayingly honest reviews of my own work, I can confirm that). Still, this doesn't quite explain why there's more force in negative than in positive reviews--why, for instance, James Cameron, with most of civilization at his feet, suddenly began whining about a few sharp words someone applied to Titanic. Critics are often astonished by the long-lasting effect of certain reviews. In 1967 I reviewed Place d'Armes, a first novel, by Scott Symons. The response from the author, in print, on television, and in person, was on a scale that would perhaps have been justified if I had written a 1,000-page book accusing him of mass murder. Symons has claimed for decades that my 800 words destroyed his career--and, he sometimes adds, his life as well. All nonsense, of course, but most critics have had similar experiences.
Jock Abra of the University of Calgary psychology department tried to come to grips with this phenomenon in a 1994 paper on critics and criticism. He explained it through evolution, which surprised me until I reflected that neo-Darwinians now call evolution a universal solvent, a theory that eventually explains everything. How might it deal with the disproportionate effect of negative reviews? Abra: "Perhaps because the first requirement for survival is to avoid potential dangers, the human psyche takes far more note of negative than positive phenomena." Millenia spent in the jungle and the forest programmed us all to quicken at the sight of anything hostile. As Abra says, "Professors invariably remember one student's harsh comment over a chorus of approval. This being the case, even the odd act of censure by a generally encouraging critic will insure a reputation as a sadistic assassin."
This being the case, why do people sign on for the life of the critic? There are even critics who find it an unlikely choice. Philip Marchand of the Toronto Star begins his provocative book of essays, Ripostes: Reflections on Canadian Literature, by saying that writers become book reviewers only after discovering they can't write novels. He's pretty sure that young people, when choosing careers, do not set out to be critics. When I read that, I thought: well, gosh, I did. As an adolescent, I liked the idea of discussing in public the writing, painting, etc. that interested me. It sounded like a wonderful life (which it turned out to be). Inevitably, of course, a critic will be seen by some as a sadist, but that can happen to a doctor, a bank manager, or even a novelist.
As for the furious writer who hoped to inspire a heart attack in his hostile reviewer: I believe he never achieved his goal. The critic has since died, but of another cause, and not in the novelist's presence. The revenge-seeker was frustrated. Unless, like Bech, he adopted other methods.