I’m hungry already. It’s 6:35 a.m., and I’m awake, back on New York time in my head, and my body is ready to eat. Luckily, this would require a call down to room service, so I’m able to hold myself off for the moment. Anyway, I’m not making any more promises, not after yesterday. No more of these “pledges,” quickly followed by self-recrimination and defeat. Oh, and a nice food binge. So, that’s something at least—no more empty promises. If I diet, great. If I don’t, fine. I’m prepared to live with my choices, no matter what the outcome.
Better to take my mind off things for now. Do something. I start by reading copies of some old reviews I find as I’m cleaning out my computer case. It’s always interesting to me how different artists respond to their critical reception. Some won’t read anything, while others voraciously read it all. Still others have more elaborate lines of defense—think of the Maginot line but it actually holding. Various colleagues have detailed for me their personal rituals on the subject, and each time I find it fascinating. Certain artists will read just theater reviews, while a different number of them will glance only at film reviews, and all for different reasons. For most of them, the critics seem to be a kind of mild annoyance. The collective image they project is that of Orestes, being slowly but perpetually chased across the horizon by furies. My feeling on the subject, however, is pretty simple: Read everything and believe nothing.
I’ve received a number of blistering critiques throughout my career—even in Slate. Was I devastated by this? Not at all. No more heartbroken, in fact, than I was thrilled when a critic appreciated something I’d done. Meaning it’s just somebody’s opinion—let’s keep it in perspective. I’ve always been one to enjoy a well-turned phrase, and I find criticism, at its best, to be a high form of art in and of itself. Grab a volume of Kenneth Tynan’s best stuff, or Pauline Kael’s, and you’ll see what I mean. The writing is keenly observant about its given topic, and the prose itself is a beautiful thing to behold. On a good day, a few of our best theater and film critics are in the same ballpark as these vaunted heroes from criticism’s past. And when they’re on, well, it’s a pleasure to read.
The key to surviving your critics is this: Don’t take them too seriously—at least not any more seriously than they should take this little ditty of mine. This applies to all walks of life and to any job you can imagine. Take it all in but walk to your own drummer—if you don’t like “drummer” analogies, then make up your own. Look, it’s basic math: I take up two hours of their lives with what I have to say, and it takes me about six minutes to read their responses while I’m sitting at breakfast or in the back of a cab. Or otherwise engaged. Good, bad, indifferent, I accept what the critics have to say as their own feelings and then move on to the next page to see what’s playing at the local cinema. It’s the way I’ve always done it, and for me it’s the only way to go about it. I cannot give anybody too much power over my work, and that goes for audience, family, and all the rest. I have an idea, I write it up—if I get lucky it gets produced. After that, it’s anybody’s guess. Will the work survive? Of course it will. Longer than the review, longer than the reviewer even, in all probability. Films and plays are tough little creatures, for having to exist in media that are so damn ephemeral.
I’ve heard people say—after receiving a negative comment from somebody—that this person “just didn’t get it.” I’m not sure that’s ever true. I usually think, Yeah, they got it, they just didn’t like what they got. When a critic responds well or ill to my art, it lands on my radar for about 10 minutes, tops, and then I remember that I still have work to do. A lot of work. Hey, I’m thankful that my writing is getting out there at all. Not so many years ago, I couldn’t get arrested by the critics; now many of them wish that I would be. From where I’m sitting, I’ve got the best seat in the house and press night comes but once a year. Every other day is like Christmas Eve.
OK, that took my mind off food for 10 minutes or so. Now I’m back. Breakfast it is …