The other morning I saw Tom Brokaw do something everyone on earth would like to do, had he but the means. In a segment of the "Today" show equivalent to a letters-to-the-editor column of a newspaper, Mr. Brokaw read several letters from viewers who were hostile to an unfavorable essay on Richard Nixon that Mr. Brokaw had delivered some days earlier. Not having heard that essay, I could only agree with it. Far more impressive was Mr. Brokaw's decision to read his critical letters in public.
For what he accomplished in this exercise was an act of purgation as cleansing and purifying as any born-again baptism. This is not to say that purgation was his primary aim; Mr. Brokaw seems an honorable fellow, and I have no doubt his display of wounds was in the spirit of fairness. The effect, however, was to emphasize the fairness, the confident magnanimity of the act, over the viewers' hostility. Mr. Brokaw read a telegram advising him to "Shut up," and it was charming.
No one who works outside the public realm could achieve such a feat. A dictator can always shoot his critics, and usually does. But hurl a disapproving comment at a lawyer or a teacher, and it lolls around his house like an out-of- work uncle: dour, taciturn, effusing guilt and anger that fester and sizzle. Nor does it matter in the slightest if the criticism is stupid. The point is that someone, anyone, has disapproved of what you did, has broken the momentum of your right and brilliant course.
I have seen many amazing things in my fascinating life, but I have never seen anyone who could take criticism well. So-called "constructive" criticism is, of course, the worst. But all criticism, be it casual or vicious, is unpalatable. Sure, you can profit from criticism, in the long and painful run. But taking it is something else. Taking it means letting it go down like custard -- no blinking, no flinching, no wishing you were dead.
The reason this is so, I think, has to do with a series of interlocking truths connected to the way we do our work. There is within everyone a potential chain reaction that is ready to go off with terrific speed, to riple from the superficial level to the deep, at the drop of a frown. At the superficial level are such considerations as one's accuracy and consistency. At the intermediate, competence and excellence. And at the deep level, the heart of darkness and trembling, is love: i.e.; You've found an error in my long division. Therefore, you don't love me.
All this presumes a correlation between love and work, the exact nature of which, if true, is too much for me to ponder. The one thing I'm pretty sure of is the less one appears to need love, or approval, in one's work, the more one probably does, which is why the famous and powerful need the most. When they fail to receive it, even on occasion, they either find a way to get their castigations out of their systems, as Mr. Brokaw did, or they fly into a rage. In Joyce Cary's "The Horse's Mouth," the lunatic painter, Guly Jimson, hits the ceiling when a sculptor tells him his masterpiece is nuts.
In fact, his masterpiece was nuts, which made the criticism all the more infuriating. Artists generally take criticism worse than others, because if they're any good, they know perfectly well when they're messing up; and the last thing they want to hear is they're messing up. Moreover, since one of the aims of art is clarity, if you're not getting through, it hurts. Given the choice between being praised and misunderstood, and being dispraised and understood correctly, most artists would prefer to be praised and understood correctly.
Writes are an especially touchy bunch, perhaps because they deal in words, which are common property, and can be thrown back in your face. My own response to criticism is the phrase, "Oh, yeah?" Other writers say, "Sure" or "So what?" No writer I've met ever disregards criticism entirely, even when the critic is clearly an out-and-out crank. A woman who disagreed with an article by the British essayist Dean Inge wrote him: "I am praying nightly for your death. It may interest you to know that in two other cases I have had great success."
It is said the dean was delighted by that letter, but I doubt it. I don't doubt he was delighted to talk about the letter, and that he grew more delighted the more he talked about it; but that he actually liked the letter, never. It is simply too much to ask of the frail human mind to delight in its own condemnation. The best one can do is what Mr. Brokaw did, and grin and share it.