Screenwriter and novelist

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Condition Critical

Do you remember the reaction when Hitchcock's Frenzy was released? If you weren't around or you don't recall, then let me tell you that the critics were not kind. They found the film incredibly dated, a hangover from another era; the general implication was that Hitchcock was past it, and here was the proof. It was almost as if there was something rather sad about the spectacle of the old boy still trying to keep up.

In case your memory needs a jog, Frenzy is the one where Barry Foster plays the Necktie Murderer; we may not call them neckties but the Americans do, so no arguments, please. It had Covent Garden locations and Jon Finch as the cold-fish hero, and a long set-piece in the back of a moving potato truck with Foster trying to prise his tiepin from the death-grip of one of his victims (if you remember nothing else, you'll remember the crack as he breaks open her fingers).

Hitchcock paid a lot of attention to the critics, before as well as after the attentions of Truffaut and Co. He paid more attention than he sometimes should have, perhaps. His biographers indicate that he could be remarkably thin-skinned when the criticism was negative, to the extent that he could feel pushed into making unwise choices in his work; the awkward urge to seem 'modern' in Frenzy might well have been one such consequence. But it's not only negativity that can do harm. One of the surest ways to ensure that a popular artist loses his touch is to urge him to get serious.

But then, what artist of any kind was ever anything other than thin-skinned? A weird combination of sensitivity and endurance are the prerequisites of the job. But there's a consumerist end to any artistic process and criticism is an unavoidable element of that. It's made publicly, and it's inevitably taken personally. Everyone can have an opinion about the work, that's what it's there for. But only the critic's opinion becomes a matter of public record. It's the artist's exclusive and private hell-on-earth to know that the critic's words will not only pre-shape the expectations of those who haven't yet encountered the work, but that for many they'll substitute for the experience of ever seeing it at all.

How do you deal with this? I mean, personally, psychologically? There are those who, like Chung Kuo author David Wingrove, believe in entering into an open and vigorous debate with one's critics. I can see something in the logic behind this. In the case of the smart-arse school of criticism, it can be like turning the spotlight onto a heckler; they either dig their own graves, or else they get sheepish and then shut up. But for myself, I've got other uses for my limited energy. One of the most telling pieces of advice I can recall is 'never reply to a criticn, and so far I've managed to follow it. The work is its own argument. It's complete and there should be nothing to add.

I made a conscious decision a while ago that I wasn't going to take such stuff on board. Criticism is not wise advice to the artist, it's a dialogue between the reviewer and the public. Your relationship to it is that of an eavesdropper… and eavesdroppers who listen in hope of hearing something good about themselves almost invariably find disappointment.

A while ago I decided that I wouldn't seek out reviews. If they were sent to me, I wouldn't read them. When the envelope of cuttings came from my publisher, I wouldn't even open it. The good ones you never quite believe, and that's healthy. The bad ones you can never quite forget, and that isn't. These are, I have to say, resolutions that I have so far failed to keep in spite of my most determined efforts. It's a human urge, and it's strong. But I'm working on it.

Shouldn't I try to keep in touch? Shouldn't I care what people think? I have, touch wood, done pretty well for reviews of late and so the decision is hardly motivated by a bruising. But I find that a large part of the writing process involves shutting out what others think in order to isolate my own ideas. It's the one market I can corner completely, the only way I can be sure of offering something unique. The same's true of all of us. In any field where everyone is trying to analyse and imitate, Life's Big Trick is to bring in that dash of the new that comes out of nowhere at all. The non-recurring phenomenon. Business people hate it, and ultimately they depend on it.

I saw Frenzy again a while ago. It isn't Hitchcock's greatest movie, but it seems better than I remembered it. The fact that it's dated is no longer an issue. It's part of the past now, and everything's dated there. The sense of anachronism that was central to just about all of the critical discussion has somehow evaporated.

Which makes me wonder. If it can vanish in time, was it ever really there at all?

First published as part of the Craft Notes column in the newsletter of The Writers' Guild of Great Britain.