Terry Gross: Now, you are both a novelist and critic. So you have lived and worked in two different, often conflicting worlds. You write that as an author, receiving a bad review is like being spit on by a complete stranger in Times Square. Has that feeling ever held you back from writing a bad review?
Wilfrid Sheed: It finally held me back from writing any reviews at all. I do very, very few these days, at least of living people, because, well, just to be crass about it, I don't need any more enemies. As a novelist, you really don't need any more than the course of life is going to send you.
But also, yes, on humane grounds, I think that you lose the killer instinct as you go along. I think that criticism can be a blood sport, really to be indulged by the young. As you get old, you imagine that perhaps the person is ill, or, you know, you imagine all the situations that have happened to yourself at one time or another, and you really can't go on giving it: You know how much it hurts.
TG: You don't think that criticism plays a higher function than just panning a new book or dishing the writer?
WS: Yes, I suppose when I talk about panning, and I really never did enjoy it, people seem to assume that this is the part of the work that critics really enjoy the most, and I suppose, you know, one can indulge oneself, and there are probably more rich hostile words in the language than nice ones.
But I have really enjoyed writing favorable reviews, and actually, I think criticism itself goes ways beyond praise and blame. Criticism, as opposed to reviewing, is that you assume that the reader is familiar with the work of art or will make himself so, and then you can talk.
This is the talk of people who have gone beyond the question of whether it's good or bad and now just want to talk about the thing itself, and that kind of criticism I would still like to do.
- Wilfrid Sheed, who died last week at age 80, in a recently rebroadcast 1988 interview with Terry Gross for Fresh Air. You can listen to the interview here, and read the transcript here.