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The Writer or the Critic: Who Is the Best Judge?

December 30, 2009

A recent article in The Guardian, Is James Ellroy the best judge of his own novels?, examines Ellroy’s strange disowning of his novel The Cold Six Thousand (2001). Critics and readers found the harsh, clipped and dialectic prose style (which is sometimes called Ellrovian prose) of The Cold Six Thousand far too jarring and difficult to read. Many reviewers were scathing of the novel, and Ellroy has come to agree with their analysis. Perhaps Ellroy is being too harsh on himself. I believe The Cold Six Thousand is flawed, and the prose style is a distraction, but the plotting and structure is thrilling. If you can get to grips with Ellroy’s writing style, you are left with a remarkable fictionalised account of five years of American history from 1963 to 1968, including the Civil Rights movement, the escalation of the war in Vietnam and concluding with the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.

Ellroy did his utmost to promote the novel at the time it was released, so perhaps his change of opinion regarding its merit is in itself a publicity stunt. By disowning his previous work he creates excitement for his forthcoming novels (which he will always promote as being bigger and better). After all, Ellroy has expressed some harsh judgements on some of his other work. With some critics there is already an inbuilt hostility to crime and mystery fiction, so it is not a surprise that crime writers have to steel themselves to harsh criticism or sometimes talk down their own work or grow to dislike it. Mickey Spillane insisted he was a writer not an author. Arthur Conan Doyle grew weary of his most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes, as did Ian Fleming of James Bond. I’m also not sure writers should always be trusted when they give opinions as to which is their best book. Norman Mailer insisted his bloated fictional history of the CIA, Harlot’s Ghost (1991) was his best novel, but there are few critics who would agree with him. On the other hand, Ellroy’s dismissive attitude to some of his previous novels  may have created a situation in which readers and critics no longer trust his views on his own work.

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