Posted by: carolannwilliams | November 21, 2009


On Sunday, November 8 Stephen King’s new book, Under the Dome, was reviewed by James Parker on the front page of the NY Times Book Review. What a pan! On Wednesday, November 11 it was reviewed by Janet Maslin in that day’s Arts section. What a paean! Parker hates the voice of the novel; Maslin loves its humanity. Parker derides King’s multitude of cultural references; Maslin sees in them King’s “great capacity for escapist fun.” Parker calls King’s ability to pour out the pages “pulp speed”; Maslin says this book launches King out of pulp into the realm of “literary Americana.” Who is right? I haven’t read the novel but I’d wager to say neither one. Each makes a good case for his/her own point of view, and as you read each review you believe it. But the extremity of the dichotomy makes me pause. It also makes me remember my time in the theater.

A common part of the development process of any play is the staged reading. This is a performance of the play, scripts in hand, on a rudimentary set with the occasional rudimentary prop. Audience members are invited to linger afterward and comment on what they’ve seen. At one such staged reading of one of my plays a person stood up and proclaimed it the worst play he’d ever seen; he delineated every awful thing about it. As soon as he’d finished another person popped up to proclaim the play absolutely brilliant, perhaps the best play he’d ever seen; he went on to elucidate every radiant moment. Tempting as it was to agree with critiquer #2, I knew they were both wrong. The play was not trash (it went on to a full production at that same regional theater), but neither was it treasure (no MacArthur genius grant waiting in the wings). I focused my attention on the comments of all the other people whose opinions dumped the play soundly in the middle; not horrible, but not perfect.

This sort of thing happens often. It may have happened to you, particularly in a critique group where you are trying to garner information to help you proceed. My advice is to 1) realize that if the reactions are that strong in both directions, you’ve probably written something very powerful, and 2) focus on the middle ground. Focus particularly on the glitches that the majority seem to notice. Listen for the patterns that emerge. Each person might have a slightly different reaction to the glitch but if they’re all about the same basic element (or a few) you know where you need to focus your attention.

So, pan or paean? Don’t believe them. Nothing is perfect, and only on rare occasions should you junk your manuscript. Pan or paean — get to work!

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