Us and the Critics

By Paulo Coelho
For The Bali Times

Since I wrote about literature in the last three columns, I thought that the theme would not be complete without touching on a subject that is taboo to me: the critics.

Why is it a taboo? Because writers write, readers read and critics criticize. Inverting that order would at the very least be unadvisable. However, practically every day I receive some email from people who feel personally attacked when they see something negative about me in the press.

Although grateful for the solidarity, I explain that all this is part of the game. I have been criticized ever since I wrote The Alchemist (The Diary of a Magus passed relatively unnoticed by the press, except for reports that spoke about the author but hardly ever referred to the contents of the book).

I have seen many writers enjoying tremendous public success but when they receive the inevitable stoning from the critics, they tend to follow one of two directions. The first is not managing to publish any more books: this was the case of Perfume by Patrick Sussekind. At the time, his editor (who is also mine in Germany) published two full pages in the local newspapers, one with the criticism loathing the book, the other with the book agents saying how they loved it. Perfume became one of the biggest bookstore successes of all time. Then Sussekind published a collection of short stories, two books he had written before his big success, and then left the scene.

In the second case, writers become intimidated and try to please the critics at their next launching. Susanna Tamaro enjoyed tremendous public applause (and an avalanche of attacks from the critics) for Follow your Heart. Her next book, Anima Mundi, was anxiously awaited by her admirers; then she changed the simple, marvelous poetry of the original title for something so complex that she lost her faithful readership and ended up not pleasing the critics either.

Another example is Jostein Gaarder. Sophie’s World enjoyed fantastic success because he was able to handle the history of philosophy in a direct, agreeable manner. But neither the critics nor the philosophers liked the book. Gaarder began to use complicated language and ended up abandoned by his readers – and still detested by the critics.

It would seem from the paragraphs above that I too have begun to pass judgment. Why? Criticizing is so easy – the hard thing is to write books.

In The Zahir, the main character (a famous Brazilian writer) says that he can guess exactly what will be said about his new book, which has still to come out: “Once again, in these troubled days we live in, the author makes us flee from reality.” “Short sentences, superficial style.” “The author has found the secret to success – marketing.”

Just like the main character in The Zahir, I am never wrong. I made a bet with a Brazilian journalist, and I hit the nail on the head.

Let me end this column with a sentence by Irish playwright Brendan Behan:

“Critics are like eunuchs in a harem. Theoretically they know the best way to do it, but that’s as far as they get.”

Please, gentlemen critics, do as I do: don’t take the sentence above as a personal offense!

© Translated by James Mulholland

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Paulo Coelho

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