The Help Desk: The space race

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to

Dear Cienna,

You know that old line about book critics being frustrated novelists? Do you think there's any truth there? Is it, like, 68 percent true, maybe?

Joe, Renton

Dear Joe,

All novelists are frustrated but yes, book critics are an odd mix of fangirl and frustrated rival to the authors they critique. It's natural to be competitive in this way. For instance, I have a natural rivalry with retired NASA astronaut Steve Swanson, who many agree is the nicest guy on land or in space – a real Prom King of the People.

You might be wondering why the silly fuck I would choose an all-American hero as a rival. Have you ever heard the old spider adage "bite up"? In other words, don't spin a web to snare a fly, spin a web to snare an astronaut and if a fly lands in the interim, eat him for dinner and then piss on his desiccated corpse.

Retired NASA astronaut Steve Swanson and I attend the same gym. I find myself working out with him regularly. My pushups look like I carry the weight of the world on my shoulders while he knocks his out in Zero-G. I find myself thinking, "Goddamn your perfect pecs, retired NASA astronaut Steve Swanson." I also note his flaws, and find satisfaction in the fact that, given his advanced age, he will likely die before me.

Does this make me a bad person? No. At worst, it makes me a frustrated spaceman.

The best book critics are frustrated novelists who have spent their lives studying and practicing the art of writing good, and are in the best position to crack open the form and structure of a work. Book critics are especially eager to dissect books that succeed in ways that they, as writers, fail.

I would say 68 percent frustrated is accurate.