The Critic by Nico Laeser
The Devil is in the details. He is also in my apartment, breathing hot, sickly smelling breath down the back of my neck while I write this. He stands around eight feet tall, adorned with matted fur, and complete with the demonic appendages that I would usually attribute, although only figuratively, to all of Annabelle’s many critics. My anomalous guest says that I am to act as both narrator and stenographer during the course of his visit, for what may be my last few minutes among the living.
My name is Paul Dresden and I am a writer, but not one that you’ve probably ever heard of. Right now the beast is leaning over my right shoulder, telling me that this will likely be the last thing I write before he takes me to Hell to endure an eternity of fire and torture. He says that there’s too little time for my magnum opus, but I’d better make an effort if I’m to be remembered for anything other than the trashy romance novels written under my pseudonym, Annabelle Summers.
I’ve asked him if having a demon loom over me, snarling, drooling and barking threats of never-ending fire and torture is supposed to act like some kind of conduit for creative juices. To this, he laughed an ingenuous laugh between his boar-like teeth and replied, “Actually, the majority of people excrete the same creative juices that you typically use, instead of ink, when they first encounter me.”
I will omit from the devil’s replies, the intermittent snorting and grunting, but for the purpose of any retelling, you can add one or both after every third word.
“Shit usually flows so easily from your inner narrator’s communicative sphincter. You spray and smear it across page after page, masquerading bullshit as literature to be distributed and consumed by the ignorant masses. You are the paperback patient-zero in an ensuing pinkeye pandemic,” he, or it, says.
“Surely, being a trashy writer isn’t an offense worthy of eternal damnation?”
He growls his response. “Weak writers don’t necessarily find themselves in hell, but weak people invariably do, and you just happen to be weak both in your prose, and of character.”
“It’s not fair; what choice did I have?” I say. “It’s not like anyone was interested in anything I had to say.”
The eight foot, live-action Gruffalo stands erect, looking pensive. “If you can write one honest thing, from your heart, not your bowels, I may let you live.”
He’s leaning close, whispering spittle into my ear, and there is a pungent wet-dog and burnt hair odour. “You have 231 words left to redeem yourself.”
Damned word count.
Prose by any other name would smell just as stale. I wrote as Paul Dresden and each piece was rejected multiple times. I wrote short science fiction stories as Timothy Bradshaw, and Nigel Steinway, and all were rejected.
I sat day after day in the same coffee shop, surrounded by other aspiring/wannabe writers with their thick rimmed glasses, sans glass, watching that vertical line taunt me, flashing on, off, on, off, daring me to type out another long winded request for yet another rejection letter.
It was at that coffee shop that I saw her sitting there, and I asked her that same question that always drives me crazy. “What are you reading?”
On my way home, I stopped at the bookstore and picked up a copy of the same trashy romance novel that she had been reading. I had to fight through the embarrassment, like a teenage virgin buying pornography or condoms, unable to make eye contact with the sweet girl at the cash register, or with myself in the convex security mirror on the way out. I flicked through it on the bus-ride home. For the first time while reading published work, I thought, I can write better than this.
The first Annabelle Summers book was written, picked up and published within six months, and it sold. It sold out. They asked for more and I churned them out one, then another, thinking that I could ride that money train until I made a name for myself as Paul Dresden, best-selling fiction author. I was so busy keeping up with the demand for trash that my serious work was put on hold indefinitely.
The truth is, I never returned to my serious work because I was afraid of going back to constant rejection. I had transformed into that best-selling junkyard dog, pigeon-holed and cowering behind trash, but still king of the heap. I wrote for her. She was my intended reader, my target audience. I wrote myself into a corner, and I wrote myself off.
The devil is staring at me as he picks my phone up from the desk. It looks like a toy in his clawed fist. “You’re way over your word limit, but there’s still time to edit. Consider this as your first draft,” he snarls.
He places the phone back down on my desk between the empty pill bottle and the depleted whiskey bottle, and I hear a small voice say, “911, what is your emergency?”
I try to speak, but what comes out is a slur. I’m suddenly very tired.
Minutes later, as the screen of my laptop fades to black, I realize that I am alone, and I can hear sirens calling from somewhere far away.