Criticism, especially of the arts, is like hearing someone talk about you behind your back but not really being able to do anything about it. Or, if you're John Wesley Horton, what you do is sit on the floor and mope around to Bob Dylan and Carly Simon records.
But to really be noticed as a writer — as someone writing for the public and reading in public — you have to release your darlings to the harsh words of critics. That's one thing that I, as a young writer and timid perfectionist, haven't yet embraced. But John's letter, while making light of criticsm, also shows that one must accept it as part of a writing career.
John Wesley Horton recently stopped going by the name Johnny Horton to avoid confusion between himself and the 1950s rockabilly singer. He’s won a GAP grant from Washington Artist Trust and was recently a runner-up for a literary fellowship. His first book manuscript, A New World We Can Stand to Live In, was recently a finalist in the National Poetry Series. He has poems recently out or forthcoming in Poetry Northwest, Notre Dame Review, Malpais Review, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, and the anthology City of Big Shoulders: An Anthology of Chicago Poetry (U. of Iowa Press). John is also codirector of the University of Washington’s summer creative writing program in Rome.
Check out the typewritten version of his letter by clicking the thumbnails below:
I want to tell you about the humiliation of criticism. I happen to be more critical of myself as a writer than I am of other writers. And even when I find fault in the work of my colleagues I often keep my criticism to myself, unless I’m whispering it into someone’s ear in the darkest corner of the local coffee bar.
You might call me a man of discretion, but I don’t mind being the center of attention. In fact, if you forced me to list my greatest strengths as a writer I would put reading in public at the top of the list, just above humility.
But humility hasn’t always been my second biggest strength. In fact, a decade ago my friends found me so insufferably arrogant that I actually sought the critical opinions of my enemies just to hear positive reinforcement. Let me tell you, I spent hours on the telephone listening to the advice of my mother.
Maybe she encouraged me to spend as much time on stage as possible. Maybe I was inspired by my father, a Teamster with delusions of grandeur who used to refer to his “Italian associates” whenever he dropped hints about the whereabouts of Jimmy Hoffa. Either way, I realized I needed to read my poetry in public.
The first time I stood behind a microphone and gazed over the heads of a coffee shop audience I swear I caught a glimpse of my own reflection. I could have stood there for hours discerning myself from the crowd of soy macchiato-drinking, vegan-doughnut-eating poetry lovers as though they were still water and I was kneeling at the edge of the pool.
But just then I noticed the literary critic of a local advertising rag lurking in the corner. I couldn’t believe my luck. If I performed well I might actually see my name in his paper. I immediately launched into a monologue introducing my first poem. I may even have winked at the critic and imagined my name in newsprint.
The Good Book says ask and you shall receive. Captain Willard in his narration of Apocalypse Now says, “Everyone gets everything he wants.” I wanted my name in print, and to paraphrase Jesus Christ and Captain Willard, I got it.
I heard about the review from a friend before I read it. Only the voice in the message on my answering machine wasn’t as fawning as I thought it would be. In fact, my good friend, a fellow writer, could barely stifle his laughter as he told me about my fame. I saw the paper later that day, and I read what I imagined thousands of other readers were reading at the same time. It sounded like the whole city synchronically speaking my name, followed by the literary critic’s words: I had “tortured” a poem into banality. Banality? My enemies called me many things. Even my closest friends had names for me, but the harbinger of boredom was not one of them.
If you had asked me on that day why gentlemen of the past avenged their honor by dueling I would have said confidently that a public question requires a public answer. I wanted revenge but I was helpless. How could a poet who was lucky enough to publish two or three poems a year in magazines nobody but other poets read avenge himself against the literary critic of an advertising rag that every hipster in the city looked at hoping to see the name of their band in print? What could I do but lie on my apartment floor smoking cigarettes and listening to Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” back to back with Bob Dylan’s “Idiot Wind” over and over again for a week?
The best I could do was to choreograph a scene one year later at a party where a woman friend of mine in stilettos stepped on the critic’s foot and made him spill his drink while at the same time making him believe he’d run into her. But the pleasure one takes in revenge is fleeting by its very nature. And thus, focusing your energy on vendettas is ultimately a waste of time. Modern literary society may be many things, but one thing it is not, is a culture of honor.
I suppose it’s better to be noticed than it is to be ignored, but you can’t choose your critics. They choose you. The Roman poet Horace, who once said, man was a wolf to man, also said writers ought not to publish new work until nine years after its been composed. One might also avoid reading new work in public for just as long. Should you forget Horace you may turn to Jesus, who was once quoted as having said, “Turn the other cheek.” But whatever names Jesus Christ went by, it must be duly noted that his friends didn’t call him an aspiring writer.
John Wesley “Johnny” Horton