a book critic. I make enemies for a living. I don’t mean to, but I do. I live for good writing, and bulldozing the bad is how you clear space for the good to flourish. I write for the reader and not the author—any critic who doesn’t should be forced to go eat a grain bowl in the corner—and thus every so often I make an author furious. He or she wishes to do to me what Burt Reynolds once did to the National Enquirer, which is get in his helicopter and rain down a great deal of horseshit. This is not going to be a column about my experiences as a book critic, except for here and there. The writers who approach me in public tend to be the ones whose careers I have encouraged. The rest are surely at home doing to my shapely self what the writer Shirley Jackson (“The Lottery”) did to the publisher Alfred A Knopf when he displeased her. She made a voodoo doll of him and plunged pins into it. Not long after, it is said, Knopf broke a leg while skiing.
This is a column, however, about that old-fashioned word— enemies. Today we more often speak of “rivals” or “competitors”. Richard Nixon would have been vastly duller had he compiled a rivals list instead of an enemies list. “Nothing produces such exhilaration, zest for daily life and allaround gratification as a protracted, ugly, bitter-end vendetta that rages for years and exhausts both sides, often bringing one to ruin,” wrote the muckraking journalist Jack Anderson, one of Nixon’s crucial enemies. They don’t make guys like Nixon and Anderson anymore. Their feud was not “Sometimes you sense someone is your enemy instinctively; you’re like animals that just don’t like the way the other smells.”