I read an article about a million years ago about Joyce Carol Oates. Her husband, the article said, has never read any of her books. Also, he’s never gone to any of her lectures.
Depending on my mood, this bit of information leads me to think: 1) What a strange, dysfunctional marriage they must have! On other, grimmer days, though, I think: 2) Hey! No wonder they’ve stayed married so long!
“Don’t you want me to be honest?” That’s what my husband always says after he’s read something I’ve written. Well, yes, of course, I want him to be honest. I want him to honestly and truly love everything I’ve ever written and pronounce it as fabulous and perfect and in need of no further work. How hard is that?
However, this scenario doesn’t always work out as planned.
For the sake of argument, let’s say I take criticism much worse than the average person. Let’s say I plunge into a brackish sulk when I get bad feedback. Let’s say I’m a big-time moper who begins to whisper things like, “Well, who died and made you literary king, buster?” and “Jesus, what a pompous, self-important jerk!” and “Who asked you?”
Hours pass. Ominous silences ensue. Brooding glances and white-hot glares are aimed like poison arrows.
More hours pass — or days, let’s say. It begins to occur to me that he might, possibly, have a point. A crude, childish point, but a point nevertheless. Eventually, after a long while, we begin to talk. I see that his criticisms — although shallow and completely insensitive to my needs — may have some merit. We talk more.
I start to understand more about Joyce Carol Oates. No wonder she manages to crank out a book every few days; she doesn’t have to work through a towering, frenzied marital blowup every time her husband criticizes her work. The two of them are too smart for that.
But you work with the relationship you have. If you ask for criticism, you deal with it. Eventually, anyway.
How is my husband as a literary critic? I was asked at a recent dinner party.
I looked across the table at my husband and told the truth: “He’s annoyingly good at it.”
It’s just that it takes me awhile to get from annoyingly to good.
(Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)