Sometimes I wonder: Does anyone’s opinion really matter? Can any one person’s subjective view of a piece of music really shape the experience of listening to it? I don’t know, but it’s certainly not what I strive for. For me, it’s more about the pleasure of the act of writing—the fun of thinking about things and writing about things. I really don’t think much about how the things I write will legitimately shape someone else’s experience. I just hope they enjoy the thing I wrote. If it takes 40 minutes to read an essay, I want to provide an interesting 40 minutes.
That’s probably even more true when it comes to writing fiction. The worst thing you can say about a piece of nonfiction is that the information is untrue, that the information is false. But the worst thing that you can say about a piece of fiction is that it’s boring. It doesn’t matter if the prose is structured brilliantly or the ideas in the text are arguably profound. If the book is dull, it does not succeed as a piece of fiction. So when I write novels and stories, I’m interested in being interesting, being entertaining, and being clear. That’s it.
[Even so] being reviewed and criticized can be painful. If you care at all, you’re putting yourself into the work. So when someone says “This is unsophisticated,” or “This is self-indulgent,” whatever it may be, you’re going to feel as though that is an analysis of your entire being. It doesn’t matter how well or deeply you understand that the way someone receives your art is not the same as the art itself, and that the art is certainly not the same as you.
It should be no problem for me to separate those things. I’ve been a critic for 25 years. I have no idea how many records, movies, and television shows I’ve reviewed. I remember once, when I was working in Akron, Ohio, I gave an exceedingly negative review of [the Dave Matthews Band] and, to a degree, the people who went to the concert. At the time, like many people who do criticism, my thinking was, He’s not going to care about this. He’s rich and successful and super talented, regardless of how I might personally feel about his music. It’s easy to think that a bad review is just something you’re doing for the benefit of the people who read your work. But now I realize that there are probably only two people in the world who remember that review: me and him.
That’s the thing. I remember every review ever written about me. And yet, you can’t let that kind of thing affect you too much. While I certainly feel comfortable saying certain things are good and certain things are bad, I don’t believe that those opinions are remotely irrefutable. Art can always be rediscovered, recontextualized, reevaluated. We can say things are bad and good, and we can mean it, but it doesn’t matter if we say it or not. The shelf life of opinions isn’t long, and it wouldn’t matter at all if those things went unsaid.