Writing for the Critics

You write for your readers, not for your critics. Or at least, you shouldn’t let yourself worry unduly about what the latter will think. They are one in a thousand readers. They wield power, yes, but they are famously hard to please. So why try? Put the critics out of your mind…

And yet you succumb. See how you succumb. Subtlety so, but succumbing all the same. You’ll deny it, when pressed, but the truth is that you couldn’t let those critics out of your mind. The proof is in the prose. It panders in so many parts: oh how it panders! It throws out a rope and begs a critic to catch it. No – it doesn’t take a detective to catch you at it. You don’t have to look so hard to see it.

In the case of the Belgian writer Pieter Hepp, you hardly have to look at all. Hepp has recently proved himself the arch prince of critic-pandering. He has taken ‘writing for the critics’ to a whole new level. He writes with the critics not vaguely (as with most of us) but directly in mind. His novels are, essentially, love letters to critics.

And when I say ‘critics’ I don’t mean critics in general – I mean specific, name-able critics. He brazenly shapes his work to suit the tastes of a dozen or so specific Belgian critics. He follows their work closely; studies their backgrounds; even asks them, on occasion, what it is they expect from contemporary literature. And then he writes it. Easy.

Curiously, this tactic ‘appears’ to pay off. His last novel caused a storm in Bruges earlier this year, with every critic praising it to high heaven. ‘This is the future of the novel!’ trumpeted one. ‘The greatest work ever!’ pealed another. Beyond Belgium, however, the critics were somewhat less positive. The novel bemused them. It wasn’t bad, no, but it didn’t quite strike the right chord. It wasn’t for them.

Hepp, however, isn’t all that discouraged. All he needs to do now, in his mind, is to pursue his project with a little more scope: to expand his pool of critics to include other literary scenes; to write for more of the – if not all of the – critics. Europe first, then the world. Once he’s managed this, he might even consider the common reader. Pretty soon he’ll be writing with all of us directly in mind. Resistance will be futile. He’ll be onto us before we know it. Or will he? His last novel was five hundred pages long. It took this many pages to please a bevy of Belgian critics. What price a world of them?

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