Paul Fussell's 1988 essay "A
Power of Facing Unpleasant Facts" powerfully confronts issues connected
with truth, honesty, and sticking by your principles before moving on to the
question of the proper response to criticism. Fussell is perhaps best known
for his book Class, in which he took great delight in exposing the
structure of the US class system and the peculiar foibles of each class. Fussell
ought to be better known for his essays, however, because he is a first-rate
essayist directly in the tradition of George Orwell.
Orwell himself spoke of having "a
power of facing unpleasant facts," and provided this theme to Fussell,
who continues: "and it's notably a power, not merely a talent
or a flair. The power of facing unpleasant facts is clearly an attribute of
decent, sane grown-ups as opposed to the immature, the silly, the nutty, or
the doctrinaire." The paragraph that follows is one of those you encounter all too infrequently which makes you want to copy it
out and paste it on your bathroom mirror (104):
Some exemplary unpleasant facts
are these: that life is short and almost always ends messily; that if you
live in the actual world you can't have your own way; that if you do get what
you want, it turns out not to be the thing you wanted; that no one thinks
as well of you as you do yourself; and that one or two generations from now
you will be forgotten entirely and that the world will go on
as if you had never existed. Another is that to survive and prosper in this
world, you have to do so at someone else's expense or do and undergo things
it's not pleasant to face: like, for example, purchasing your life at the
cost of the innocents murdered in the aerial bombing of Europe and the final
bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And not just the bombings. It's also
an unpleasant fact that you are alive and well because you or your representatives
killed someone with bullets, shells, bayonettes, or knives, if not in Germany,
Italy, or Japan, then Korea or Vietnam. You have connived at murder, and you
thrive on it, and that fact is too unpleasant to face except rarely.
With intellectual honesty and integrity
as his theme, therefore, Fussell begins with object lessons in honesty by examining
cases where people who ought to have known better failed to hew to principle.
Example: Victor Gollancz.
Victor Gollancz, publisher of the
Left Book Club "whose 40,000 members received regularly a work designed
to sustain their liberal principles," commissioned Orwell to write The Road to Wigan Pier, which,
as Fussell notes, offers "a strong
case for socialism." But in the second half of the work Orwell went on to comment honestly on himself
and his own (extremely uncomplimentary) perceptions of socialism, or more particularly,
some English socialists. Gollancz tried to pare down the work by jettisoning
the offensive parts, but Orwell insisted on maintaining the integrity of his
work. The good and the bad (from a socialist point of view) were mixed, and
Orwell told the truth, even at the obviously foreseeable price of giving offense.
Gollancz had to settle for a dishonest foreword disavowing Orwell's "'unresolved
conflict'--between admiring the ideal of socialism while despising some of its
actual results, as if that made him some sort of psychological freak."
The unpleasant fact Victor Gollancz
has had to face is that he has hired a real person, not a toady or gramophone,
to do a job of honest perception and expression. Gollancz, would-be censor
and tyrant, clearly never thought of applying to himself Orwell's ringing
assertion near the end of The Road to Wigan Pier: "Socialism
means the overthrow of tyranny, at home as well as abroad." (106)
Example: The University of
But this sort of dishonest damage
control is not limited to what are by now historical examples. Fussell was able
to come up with a contemporary (and contemptible) example from the University
of Pennsylvania, where he worked at the time. On a day when the well-heeled
alumni were to return to campus, the school's Daily Pennsylvanian newspaper
ran several damaging stories, including "Wharton Prof Charged with Raping
Child." The University saw large gifts at risk, and rather than counter
the assertions made by the newspaper, professors were drafted from various departments
to steal copies of the paper and dump them away from the eyes of potential donors.
The paper caught on to the University's trick and photographed at least one
professor in the act, which led to a grudging apology with
a Parthian shot from the administration (and the guilty professor). With moral
clarity, the student editors wrote commentary in return (112):
It is easier to suppress information
that it is to cope with it. Proclaiming the virtues of free speech is a
nice gesture, but respecting such principles requires character. . . . The
DP is not in the business of putting a happy face on the news . .
. . The implication [in the school's statement] that the newspaper
should have held the stories until the alumni left patronizes them as well
as compromising the purpose of the university.
It turns out that these examinations
of honesty and integrity are merely steps in the direction of Fussell's main
point, how to deal properly with the unpleasant fact embodied in a negative review of
one's writing. He first pre-empts any claim for legitimacy in a wounded response
to criticism, then develops a taxonomy of authors' improper strategies in
dealing with criticism.
Wise advice on how to take
He quotes Samuel Johnson (112):
An author places himself
uncalled before the tribunal of criticism, and solicits fame at the hazard
E.M. Forster (113):
Some reviews give pain.
This is regrettable, but no author has the right to whine. He was not obliged
to be an author. He invited publicity, and he must take the publicity that
Edna St. Vincent Millay (113):
A person who publishes
a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down . . . . If
it is a good book, nothing can hurt him. If it is a bad book, nothing can
John Keats (113):
or blame has but a momentary effect on the man whose love of beauty in the
abstract makes him a severe critic of his own works.
and on another occasion, Johnson
Nay, sir, do not complain.
It is advantageous to an author that his book
should be attacked as well as praised. Fame is a shuttlecock. If it be struck
at only one end of the room, it will soon fall to the ground. To keep it up,
it must be struck at both ends.
Fussell notes that the proper response
to a negative review is "getting busy on his next book immediately,
and resolving this time to be as little elated by public praise as downcast
by public shame."
Fussell's taxonomy of authors'
wounded responses to criticism.
(Illustrated by amusing quotations from authors' angry letters sent overhastily to the editors of major literary review magazines.)
1) Assert your confusion, because
so many "honest" readers have loved your work.
2) Embrace the loser's precept: if
others won't praise you, praise yourself.
3) Expose the hidden, discreditable
motive the reviewer has for panning your work (e.g., your work has been more
favorably received than the reviewer's).
portray a negative review as revenge settling old scores (e.g., for a negative
review in the other direction).
5) Attribute a negative review to
commercial jealousy (note archly that the reviewer has a competing work in
6) Assert that the reviewer has "not
understood" your work (but as Fussell points out, this is a double-edged
sword, because a lack of clarity is presumably your fault).
7) Point out in excruciating detail
how the reviewer is wrong (offer to send a brief to anyone writing to ask for
8) Exhibit pure self-pity. ("Sir--Your
cruel review of my _______ reduced me to tears, of course, as its author doubtless
intended . . . .")
Fussell closes with his supreme example
in this latter day Dunciad, a letter from the unsympathetic
Andrea Dworkin complaining of a negative review of her widely-panned book
His final remarks:
We are left to contemplate the
unpleasant facts good writers, like Orwell, recognize instinctively: that
you aren't all that important; that no one cares terribly except yourself
and your family whether your reputation is high or nonexistent; and that a
book worth reading succeeds rather by word of mouth than by reviews, advertising,
or dust jacket blurbs. Good socialists, good university administrators,
good presidents, and good writers are alike in this: they invite criticism,
they don't fear it, and they certainly don't reject it, reserving the word
unfair for bad calls at home plate.
Fussell's advice is good, nor does
it call for us to be superhuman. He knows negative feedback hurts, and stoically
publishes examples from negative reviews of his own books (107A). In the end,
it boils down to what we all know deep down inside--what we think of ourselves
(if we are honest) is more important than what anyone else thinks of us or our
Fussell, Paul. 1988. Thank God
for the Atom Bomb and Other Essays. Summit Books. (Pp. 103-124 for the
essay discussed here.)
----------. 1982. "Being Reviewed: The A.B.M. and Its Theory," Harper's,
February 1982. Reprinted in The Boy Scout Handbook and Other Observations.
Oxford UP. Pp. 101-113: the quotations with page numbers in the form "XXXA"
are from this edition of this essay. All other quotations are from its sequel
in the 1988 volume of essays.