Book reviews are among those things people who write books despise but find it difficult to live without. Edmund Wilson, in his essay “The Literary Worker’s Polonius,” noted: “For an author, the reading of his reviews, whether favorable or unfavorable, is one of the most disappointing experiences in life.” Yet in Upstate, a collection of journal entries from his last years, Wilson remarked that “getting older, for a writer, did not necessarily give you self-confidence. . . . I sometimes got up at four o’clock in the morning to read old reviews of my books.” The worst of writing, as more than one writer has written, is that one depends so much on the opinions of others.

Allow me to take up Wilson’s first point, about reviews being one of the most disappointing experiences of an author’s life, by way of personal example. One day, upon...


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