Internal Critic

Emma found an ad for internal critics in the back of one of her writers’ magazines. It was a small ad that promised amazing results through the miracle of internal critics. She went to the company’s website and signed up. About a week later, she received a phone call from Internal Critics Inc., a Delaware corporation operating out of Boise, ID. The woman on the phone wanted to set up a meeting so Emma could be introduced to the world of internal criticdom. Emma believed that criticdom wasn’t a word and looked it up in her dictionary.

Criticdom isn’t a word,” Emma said.

“Sure it is,” the woman said.

“It’s not in my dictionary,” Emma said. “I have it right here.”

“Not every word is in the dictionary,” the woman said.

Internal Critics Inc. had several offices in the United States (and some in Europe and Japan), so it was no problem getting someone from their nearest office (Portland) to drive up and meet with Emma.

“We’ll send Ken up there. He’s amazing,” the woman said.

Emma wanted to find out in what ways Ken was amazing, but she was afraid of the answer, that it would involve something filthy, that she would wish she hadn’t asked.

Ken would stop by on Wednesday at 10:30 a.m. He would go over the whole internal critic thing and what it all meant: What Emma could get out of it, how much it would cost, dos and don’ts. Ken would bring all of the paperwork, and he could walk her through it.

“Ken can tell you all about words like criticdom,” the woman said. “Ken can help you expand your vocabulary.”

“Hi, I’m Ken.” Ken, the representative from Internal Critics Inc., handed Emma his calling card. Emma studied it. It read, simply, “Ken, Generalist.” There was no phone number or address. There was no email or last name. Ken didn’t have a last name, or his last name was secret.

“ ‘Ken, Generalist.’ Not a lot of info. Makes you seem like some sort of con man,” Emma said and laughed.

“How so?”

“Nothing,” Emma said. “I was only joking.”

“So you’re a humorist? That’s nice. I’m happy for you.”

Emma sat at her kitchen table with Ken. Emma was reminded that the firm placed critics with writers and had offices around the world.

“Who will be my internal critic?” Emma said. “Will it be you?”

“Oh, I don’t know. That’s something the central office will have to decide,” Ken said. He continued to fill out the paperwork. “This document will need to be notarized,” he said.

Emma stared at him. “OK,” Emma said, but she wasn’t really sure. It had been so long since she had last had to get something notarized that she didn’t even remember where it had been or what it had been for. She wondered why Internal Critics Inc. needed to have documents notarized. They must have really hard-ass lawyers, she thought.

The paperwork required more than an hour and reminded Emma of her mortgage.

“When will I find out who is my internal critic?” Emma said.

“Don’t know. The home office has to feed all of your data into the computers, and then they find the perfect match.”

“Sounds like a dating service,” Emma said.

“You have a delightful sense of humor,” Ken said. Emma wasn’t sure if he was being sarcastic.

A few days later, Ken called. “Hey, Emma, Ken here,” Ken said on the phone.

“Hey, Ken, Emma here,” Emma said.

“Funny. There’s that wonderful sense of humor,” Ken said. “Hey, I found out that I’m your internal critic. Congratulations.”


Why is he congratulating me? Why am I thanking him?

Emma always thought her internal critic would be called Alistair or Winston or Maynard or Hamish, maybe even Vladimir, but certainly not Ken. She always pictured her internal critic as male, a certain type of male: severe and uncompromising, unemotional, cold, heartless, a little sadistic, maybe a brute or a lout. She couldn’t imagine someone named Ken being a very good internal critic. She wanted to introduce her internal critic to her friends, but she could never introduce one named Ken. She could even go so far as picturing a Randy as an internal critic—probably not a very good one, maybe a little sleazy and leering. No, no Randy. Her limit would be a Mike as an internal critic, but only if he called himself Michael and got indignant with anyone who tried to call him Mike. “Excuse me, no. I prefer Michael.” But never a Ken. Well, maybe if he called himself Kenneth.

She studied the Internal Critics Inc. brochure. The cover read, “All About your new Internal critic.” She wondered why they capitalized about but not new or critic. On the back of the brochure was a picture of a woman sitting at a desk. There was a caption that read, “I Love My Internal Critic!!!” (with Love replaced by a heart). It seemed so pathetic that Emma had to laugh.

Another picture had this caption: “Gosh, My Internal Critic Is darn swell!!!” Emma felt sadness that they seemed so inept at whatever sentiment they were trying to engender in her, unless it was pathos. In that case, they were extremely ept. (Emma felt stupid because after being around representatives from Internal Critics so much, she started to believe that ept could be a real word and that it was the opposite of inept.)

She was also bothered by the liberal use of exclamation points.

At the bottom of the brochure, it read, “Internal Critics Inc., Boise, Berlin, Madrid, London, Tokyo, Miami, Detroit, Portland.” She looked up each office’s street address and investigated the ones she could with Google Street View. All of the addresses were for junkyards, parks, or empty fields. She wondered if she could dispute the charges on her credit card.

There was a knock at the door. Emma opened the door, and Ken was standing on her porch. He was holding a suitcase held together with rope.

“Hi, Kenneth,” Emma said.

Ken looked at her a moment. “Excuse me, no. I prefer Ken.”

“Sorry,” Emma said.

“So is everything all set?”


“Is everything all set? Do you have a room for me?”

“Room for what?”

“That’s part of the agreement. I move in with you and help you with your work,” Ken said. “Didn’t you read the agreement?”

“Mostly,” Emma said.

“I need to become part of your life,” Ken said. He rubbed his hands together.


“No, just excited. We’re going to have a lot of fun,” Ken said.

“You’re not moving in,” Emma said.

“You signed a contract,” Ken said. “A contract is a legal document.”

Emma decided not to fight. She didn’t like the idea of spending years in court dealing with Internal Critics Incorporated’s hard-ass lawyers. She didn’t want to look back over her life and wonder why she had spent so many years in court.

That evening Ken and Emma made small talk over dinner.

“Has anyone ever told you that you’re a really sexy girl?” Ken said.

“Sure, my dad,” Emma said.

“Really? Smart dad,” Ken said. Ken looked at her for a moment. “Oh, you’re joking. You have a very dry wit. Some advice: dry wit isn’t selling right now, so you’ll probably want to stay away from it.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Emma said. “Why did you say that anyway?”

“Say what?”

“ ‘You’re a really sexy girl’? Why would you say that? Do you want me to kick you out?”

“Just making conversation,” Ken said. “Sorry. Please forgive.”

Emma watched Ken make a notation in his address book.

“Why are there so many names crossed out? Does Internal Critics Incorporated have a problem with customer satisfaction?” Emma said. She laughed. Ken frowned. “I’m just kidding,” she said. The names weren’t just crossed out. They had been stabbed angrily with a pen in an attempt to obliterate them.

“No. Those are just the ones who’ve died. Most are suicides.”

“That’s a lot of suicides,” Emma said.

“Some people just don’t take criticism well,” Ken said.

“That’s horrible,” Emma said.

“Sorry, just a little internal critic humor,” Ken said.

“Dry wit isn’t selling right now,” Emma said.

“Funny,” Ken said. “I like how you take what I said and say it back to me as a joke. That’s really very clever. Astonishingly clever. Scary clever. I’m so glad the computer paired us up.”

Emma let Ken stay in her spare bedroom. Emma realized that she wasn’t paying Internal Critics Inc. enough for Ken to be there all the time. But that just made her think that he might have had his home foreclosed and was operating some sort of scam to get room and board and maybe sex.

At night, Emma locked Ken in his room.

“Why does this spare room have a lock on the outside?” Ken said.

“I’d rather not get into that,” Emma said. “By the way, I’m also locking my bedroom door. And I have a gun. And the police station is two blocks away.”

“Oh yeah. We’re going to have a lot of fun,” Ken said.

Emma returned to the Internal Critics Inc. website for a more thorough investigation, an investigation she should have done before she got in this deep.

The company had had a fiction contest. The company’s internal critics submitted their best work, and the winning entries were posted online. Emma read the first place winner. The story began, “Bobby found that ice water coursed through his veins.” She stopped reading. The story had been written by Ken.

She wanted a new internal critic. If Ken wrote stories that started out with clichés, what did he know about being an internal critic?

Ken returned Emma’s latest story. It looked as if it had been waded up and shoved in his pocket. On the first page, he’d written TOTAL SHIT!!!! over the entire page. He’d written SHIT! over her second page. On the third page, every word had been obliterated with a Sharpie marker. That probably explained why there were Sharpie marker stains on Emma’s kitchen table.

“By the way, each story you submit to me needs a coversheet. ICI—Internal Critics Incorporated—has this coversheet that you can print out and attach to your submission,” Ken said. “I can overlook the cover page thing one time.”

“So even though I’m just handing you my story, I have to have a cover sheet? Even though we’re both in the same house, living a few feet from each other?”

“Yes, sorry, that’s what the paper pushers in the home office require. My hands are tied.”

“I saw that your short story won an award,” Emma said.

“It won several awards,” Ken said.

“Really? Even with that first line, ‘Bobby found ice water coursed through his veins’?”

“That conveys such a wonderful image, doesn’t it?”

“No, it’s a cliché.”

“I’m not familiar with that term.”



“You’re joking.”

“Sure, I’m joking.”

“Wait, you really don’t know what a cliché is.”

“Yes I do. I was joking. A cliché is an overused phrase.”

“Like ‘ice water coursed through his veins,’ for instance.”

“That’s not a cliché.”

“Since when? Did you write the story before that phrase was a cliché?”

“Sometimes writers use clichés to make fun of people who use clichés without knowing it,” Ken said. “There are several levels here. It’s pretty deep.”

“OK. Forget it. What about all of the purple prose in your story? What about that?”

“Listen, we need to concentrate on your work. It’s the only way you’ll improve. Besides, who is the professional critic here? What professional critics’ school did you go to? How many years did you spend in professional critics’ school?”

“There is no such thing,” Emma said.

“Yes there is,” Ken said. “It’s an intense course of study.”

“Most of the critics at Internal Critics haven’t written anything in more than ten years. Most of the stories in the short story contest were written twenty years ago. Everyone there is blocked. I haven’t written anything in six years.”

“Nothing?” Emma said.

“Nothing,” Ken said. “It’s depressing. One day you’re all excited about writing and the next you’re a critic for some shady company.”

“Internal Critics is a shady company?”

“No, I was talking about my former employer.”

“I don’t know if I believe that,” Emma said. “Why do you do this?”

“Do what?”

“Move into people’s homes and trash their work,” Emma said.

“Because I want to help writers improve,” Ken said.

“How can you be an internal critic if you exist outside of my head?” Emma said.

“Don’t take it too literally. It’s just the name of the company,” Ken said.

“Oh,” Emma said.

“It’s not like I’m some sort of magical realism shtick.”

“I don’t think that’d be magical realism,” Emma said.

“So, what, now you’re a literary scholar? Wait, you were making another joke. That was funny. You’re funny. Ha.”

“How do I go about disputing a charge on my credit card?” Emma said on the phone to Chase.

The customer service rep laid out the steps.

“I didn’t realize you were so upset,” Ken said. “I had no idea. I wish you’d have come to me, and we could have worked something out.”

“No, I want you to leave,” Emma said.

“You do realize that you signed a legal document, a contract. There are repercussions. You can’t simply walk away. You had it notarized.”

“I talked to a lawyer. He said you just required it to be notarized to scare people. He told me to just pay the cancellation fee and be done with you.”

“Where will I go?” Ken said. “I have nowhere to go.”

“I’m cutting my internal critic loose,” Emma said. “I’m standing up to my internal critic and kicking him to the curb. I feel empowered.”

“You’ve been dying to say that, haven’t you?” Ken said.

“Yes, I’ve been fantasizing about it.”

“Well, good luck to you. You’re going to need it.”

“Had to get in that last dig, huh?”

“I’m only here to help,” Ken said. “That’s all I ever cared about.”

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