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Wilfrid Sheed, one of the finest contemporary critics and novelists, has died. He was 80, and died of urosepsis, an infection.

Born in England and raised in America, Sheed possessed a style that was elegant and conversational; erudite and frequently funny. His work can be almost evenly divided between his life as a novelist and as a critic; one job informed the other. In his introduction to his 1978 collection of essays The Good Word and Other Words, Sheed began, “Wilfrid Sheed the critic and Wilfrid Sheed the novelist have been played off against each other for so long that I had myself come to believe they were two different people, whose ups and downs I followed with fitful interest.”

In his prime, from the early 1960s to the mid-1980s, Sheed was a protean worker, turning out book, movie, and theater reviews for a variety of publications including The New York Times, as well as many novels that frequently contained autobiographical elements. The novels often received high praise, but never sold very well. There were aspects of objective self-knowledge and witty bitterness in his novels The Hack (1963), about a struggling Catholic writer, and Max Jamison (1970), a wonderful story about a New York film and theater reviewer that was inspirational to many a young writer, as I well know. Jamison is a clever, midlevel success, forever chasing the right word and the right paycheck; he lives by a modest motto: “A critic doesn’t have to be happy, that isn’t one of his categories.”

It was probably Sheed’s shrewd essays that will stand as his greatest legacy. In “The Art of Reviewing,” he wrote, “A reviewer who would rise must learn to roar and gush and roll on the stage with mirth and pain, making of book and self a single spectacle, a Main Event.”

Sheed’s life was filled with challenges and pain. He had polio as a boy (which became the subject of one of his most praised novels, 1973’s People Will Always Be Kind), and struggled with drug addiction and alcoholism (which he wrote about with an acerbic lack of self-pity in 1995’s In Love With Daylight: A Memoir of Recovery). He was the son of Frank and Maisie Ward, founders of the great Roman Catholic publishing firm Sheed & Ward, and one of his finest books is his biography of his parents, Frank and Maisie: A Memoir With Parents (1985).

Sheed wrote of being a critic, that it was “a rough game, [but] nobody ever died of it, not while cirrhosis is around to compete with.” In one of his best essays, 1971’s “Genre Writers,” whose subject was primarily detective fiction, he described Ross Macdonald melancholy private eye Lew Archer as one who “felt guilty and rotten about his work (as don’t we all?).”

Sheed was wonderful at sour humor, but his writing life most fully conveyed joy and passion for a wide array of subjects he loved, from baseball to jazz, the movies (anyone wanting a taste of what it was like to be a movie critic in the ’70s is well advised to read his classic “Kael vs. Sarris vs. Simon”) and boxing.

He was a fighter with great grace; a pessimist with great faith.

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