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Plumage from Pegasus
by Paul Di Filippo

Kiss of the Spider Critic

One Sunday, while reading the Washington Post Book World, I realized that for months now one particular byline had been missing from its pages: that of famous critic Cleverly Taint.

Upon realizing this, I began to cast backward through my recent memories of reading other literary journals. In no case could I recall newish reviews or essays by Taint. The New York Review of Books; the Times Literary Supplement; New Republic; the Nation; the New York Times Book Review; Atlantic; Harpers-- All of Taint's usual venues had been barren of his indiosyncratic prose. No tapering off, no explanation: just a sudden drought.

This made me sad. I liked Taint's writing. He was acerbic and witty, erudite and perceptive. And he had been kind to me. A review he had authored of one of my early books had been instrumental in landing me my first agent. Although we had never met, I felt a link to him and his critical career.

I put down the Post and made a resolve. I would track down Taint and learn the cause of his silence. Perhaps he was sick or broke or otherwise down on his luck. There might be some way I could help him.

So the very next day I began phoning and e-mailing people in the business. Within a few hours, I had Taint's contact information. I dashed off a brief message online, explaining that I was a fan of his work, had noted the disappearance of his writing, and would be happy to meet with him to talk about the subject, on a strictly personal and confidential level.

The very next hour brought an electronic reply: Good to hear from you. Let's have a drink. But nothing can possibly help my career now.

A fellow New Yorker, Taint nominated a bar that proved to be midway between our apartments, and a time just hours away. Needless to say I was there well in advance, even more intrigued than I had been, thanks to the dour, hopeless tone of his message.

A dim vinyl booth in back held the critic, familiar to me from his many appearances on various PBS and cable-channel literary chat shows. Of course, off the screen and in his current condition, Taint looked more disreputable and slovenly than the usually dapper homme de lettres known to the viewing public. And, having beat me here, he had already started drinking.

I slipped into the booth, we shook hands, and I ordered a beer. After some inconsequential chitchat about mutual friends, enemies and acquaintances, I broached the crucial topic.

"Why the vast silence, Cleverly? Is it possible you've abandoned literature? Has your passion for explicating fiction guttered out?"

The red eyes of the literatteur grew misty. "Not at all. I still love the damn stuff."

"It must be censorship then. You've been blacklisted. But what could you have possibly done to get on the bad side of so many editors simultaneously?"

Taint glugged his martini and gestured to the waitress for another. "Are you kidding? I have editors calling me daily, begging me for anything--a blurb, a capsule review, even a "books received" notice. But I dare not submit anything. Nor dare I explain why. And of course, that blanket refusal is indeed finally beginning to piss them off. Soon I will be blacklisted."

"I don't understand then. Those are the only possible explanations-- No, wait, is it writer's block?"

Taint laughed and held up his hands. "Could these fluent fingers ever fail to dance across the keyboard? No, I'm not blocked. I am positively overflowing with opinions and apercus, harsh flensings and bountiful encomiums. But I cannot commit any of them to print, for fear of the repercussions."

"Oh, come now, I don't buy that. You've always called them as you've seen them, never fearful or beholden to anyone. Besides, you're at the peak of your profession. Who could possibly harm you? Except yourself, of course, which is what I see you doing now."

"How about a witch?"

I was flabbergasted. "A witch?"

"Yes. One of those New Age Wiccans. Perhaps you recall my review some months ago of a certain 'novel'--if one can dishonor the beloved term--by one Luna Samhain. Nothing Says Lovin' Like Something from the Coven."

"That stinker? You positively eviscerated it. And with what damning effect! One week it was on all the bestseller lists, and the next week it was on remainder tables across the nation."

Taint smiled wanly. "My final triumph. Would that I had never heard of that woman and her book!"

"Are you telling me she--she cursed you?"

"Yes. I received her malevolent letter shortly after the review ran. It arrived by messenger bat at midnight. In it she described what she had done to me. Every word of her curse was subsequently proven true. And what a curse! Simple blindness or paralysis would have been merciful. I could still dictate my reviews from inside an iron lung, like that Frenchman and his autobiography."

By now I was nearly dying with curiosity. "Tell me--what did she do to you?"

"Only this. Every book I inveigh against will succeed, and every book I praise will fail. Without exception."

I let out an involuntary gust of breath, as if I had been punched. "But, but--that's fiendish!"

Taint nodded sadly. "Isn't it though? I learned the full impact of it with the very next review of mine that followed the bestowal of the curse. Does the title Titanium Skirts mean anything to you?"

"Of course. The debut book of short stories by Esther Pribyl. Everyone predicted great things for it. After all, Pribyl had that unique point of view and publicity hook, being both a NASCAR driver and a top fashion model. But the book stiffed."

"Right after my extolling of it."

"But surely that's mere coincidence."

"Is it? Then how do you explain the success of, gack, Howling Blood, as soon as I sought to bury it?"

"That horror novel by the ten-year-old ex-fundamentalist preacher kid? Well, you know the tastes of the public. . . . "

"Oh, don't try to convince me everything is just random synchronicity. I went through all these chains of reasoning myself at first, reluctant to believe in anything so foolish as a curse. But the misfirings continued to pile up. Then I began to experiment. I'd wait until the critical consensus was in on a book, and it was well on its way either up or down the charts. Then I'd weigh in. And the book would inevitably reverse its direction! There was no mistaking the cause and effect relationship."

Taint's doleful expression and grim certainty forced me to accept his conclusions. "But this is awful! If you render your true opinion, you bestow upon a book the exact opposite fate it deserves!"

"Correct. And what if I try to get around the curse by lavishing kisses on the stinkers and hurling brickbats at the exemplary books? Sure, the individual authors will benefit or suffer appropriately. But what about my reputation? I'll be seen as an idiot! All the virtue and respect I've accumulated will be as nought! My peers will call me a hack, a tout, a vulgarian, a Philistine! My name will rank with Rex Reed's and Walter Kirn's as a laughingstock!"

I thought furiously for fifteen minutes, but came up with no solution other than: "Couldn't you apologize to Samhain? Promise to praise all her books from here on, if she removes the curse?"

Taint erupted. "Never! That would leave me in exactly the same spot I'm in now! My good name allied on the side of crap. No, a brooding silence is my only recourse."

I pushed away from the table and slid out of the booth. "Well, Cleverly, I'm very sorry. If I have any more helpful ideas, I'll be sure to get in touch with you again."

I left him drowning his sorrows in liquor, fully expecting never to hear from the poor doomed bastard again.

Great was my surprise when Taint called me only three weeks later. His voice was filled with glee.

"I thought you'd like to know I've gotten a new job! I'm out of books now, and into television."

I confessed to bafflement. "Doing what?"

"I'm a producer with one of the networks. I called in a few chits--you remember when I gave a smashing review to that novel by the soap-opera actor, calling it a 'postmodern shattering of the intermedia barriers of self-reflexiveness'--and now I'm one of the people in charge of developing new shows. I'll be making scads more money than I ever could as a lowly critic."

"I assume the curse has been lifted then."

"Not at all!"

"But won't your endorsement as producer continue to damn the shows you admire and boost the ones you hate?"

"Exactly! But that's just what I need to happen. You see, every time I manage to get a literate, witty, experimental show on the air, just the kind I admire, it will earn immense praise from the critics but garner only low ratings typical of its kind and eventually fail. However, my star will shine brightly in the press as a daring executive willing to take risks for 'quality programming.' Here's one pitch I've already made. 'The High Art Tradition with Jonathan Franzen.' One hundred percent talking heads on a set that looks like every tenured English professor's living room."

I murmured approvingly.

"Now on the other hand, any commercial dreck I promote yet detest will of course soar in the ratings, earning my network millions, and making me the golden boy. I've got one such project greenlighted already. It stars Meryl Streep as a transgendered single parent, and it's called 'Ex-Why-Question Mark'."

"Did she go from female to male or vice versa?"

"That's the beauty part! You never know! Sometimes she dresses butch, sometimes she's all Ru Paul. Her sex life is totally open-ended. Lots of hunky and babelicious guest stars, including Ellen Degeneres. The watercooler buzz will be enormous!"

I failed to repress a groan.

"No, don't look at it by your outmoded standards. This is a win-win situation!"

I tried objectively to see a flaw in Taint's reasoning, but failed.

"You don't suppose that other television producers share your curse, do you?"

"There's no supposition about it! I've already been initiated into their secret society! Would you like to join our screenwriters' auxiliary? We have staff witches who can make the necessary adjustments in your talents."

I thought about tossing off lefthandedly potboilers that hit the bestseller lists, and slaving over brilliant masterpieces that met endless rejection.

"No thanks, it's too much like what I'm already used to."

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