Pat Conroy Ignores Critics, And So Can We

South_Carolina_flag_mapOne of my favorite novelists, Pat Conroy, has written a couple of memoirs that explore the roots of his fiction. The latest one, The Death of Santini, tackles the most painful source of his inspiration, the brutal treatment he and his siblings suffered at the hands of their father, a Marine Corps fighter pilot.

Conroy was always destined to be controversial, with such an array of dark and violent subjects to choose from. His first book, The Boo, was originally self-published (something we indies can take to heart). His second, The Water Is Wide, described his experience as an inexperienced teacher in an impoverished African American elementary school. His methods got him fired after a year, and his indictment of the segregated school system provoked a fair amount of outrage in the South. Since then, Conroy has continued to deal with the hot topics that roiled the nation during the 1960s, such as southern racism, civil rights, and the Vietnam War. He also tackles the most personally sensitive topic imaginable: his own experiences with mental illness, including the psychosis of a sister, the suicide of a brother, and his own periodic breakdowns.

Conroy’s writing tends to be lush and metaphor-filled, something that many so-called experts frown on. Certainly we indies get slammed if we’re perceived to be too flowery. That’s why I was delighted to read his blast against the naysayers: “I trained myself to be unafraid of critics, and I’ve held them in high contempt since my earliest days as a writer because their work seems pinched and sullen and paramecium-souled.”

A paramecium-souled critic! Has anyone ever put it better? I’m certainly not knocking constructive criticism, which authors need, but haven’t we all encountered our share of these paramecium souls? Don’t we know what it is to be willfully misunderstood by readers who refuse to suspend disbelief long enough to accept our vision? That kind of automatic dismissal precludes thoughtful judgment and lends itself to nit-picking. And don’t even get me started on the hordes of anonymous trolls who feel qualified to write a “review” based on a two-minute skimming.

Conroy also goes on to explain why he doesn’t write reviews, or at least bad ones: “I made the decision to never write a critical dismissal of the works of another brother or sister writer, and I’ve lived up to that promise to myself. No writer has suffered over morning coffee because of the savagery of my review of his or her latest book, and no one ever will.” We could all take a lesson from those words: a thoughtful critique is one thing, a hatchet job quite another.


5 thoughts on “Pat Conroy Ignores Critics, And So Can We

  1. I couldn’t agree more. Not every reader is going to understand our work because not all of our thoughts are ideas are catered toward everyone. Like Conroy, I too, don’t believe in writing negative reviews. If I don’t enjoy reading something, I simply won’t write the review or will try to find something, small as it may be, to make it somewhat positive. We are all in this together so brotherly love and support are musts.

    1. I’m like you. I won’t slam a fellow writer, and I was glad to find out that an author of Pat Convoy’s stature feels the same way. Actually, his disdain for critics probably contributed to his success, by allowing him to make his own way fearlessly.

  2. I don’t understand people who decide they don’t like a book, and proceed to slash it in a review.

    If I don’t like a book, I just stop reading it.

    On the other hand, negative reviews that are themselves well-written – and supported by appropriate quotes from the work in question – can be a delight to read, and help make the decision to read or skip a book.

    I don’t have to write the mean-spirited reviews – because there are plenty of people happy to write them. Funnily enough, some of those reviews tell me exactly what I want to know about the book – to read it. It takes all kinds of reviewers, but I have little time and energy, so I spend it carefully where I think it might do the most good.

    1. I have gotten some useful advice from negative reviews, but they are only useful if they are based on a thorough reading of the book. “I read the first few pages and couldn’t go on” does not help anybody.

      1. Nor is “too many big words.”

        But that’s a good one to have. Other people will read that review, and decide to read the book or not, depending on whether they like or dislike big words (I deliberately put ‘solitudinarian’ in the description, and have left it there, because some people have told me they love it, and it warns the others; it’s perfectly clear in context – which is also deliberate).

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