Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

"I will hate you till the day I die"

We interrupt this hiatus for this message from your host. The other day I had an email exchange that went something like this:

Anon. Why did you say those terrible things about me a few years ago?

Me. I didn't. I explained to you at the time that I didn't. [expressions of extreme irritation redacted here and elsewhere]

Anon. That doesn't change the fact that you said terrible things about me.

Me. Wait . . . Yes, it does. I wasn’t talking about you, I was talking about someone else.

Anon. You ought to be ashamed of yourself. You need to take responsibility for your words.

Me. [pastes in quotations proving that I was talking about someone else]

Anon. [silence]

Sigh. Well, at least I’m not Caleb Crain, whose review of Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work got this response, on Caleb’s blog, from de Botton himself:

Caleb, you make it sound on your blog that your review is somehow a sane and fair assessment. In my eyes, and all those who have read it with anything like impartiality, it is a review driven by an almost manic desire to bad-mouth and perversely depreciate anything of value. The accusations you level at me are simply extraordinary. I genuinely hope that you will find yourself on the receiving end of such a daft review some time very soon - so that you can grow up and start to take some responsibility for your work as a reviewer. You have now killed my book in the United States, nothing short of that. So that's two years of work down the drain in one miserable 900 word review. You present yourself as 'nice' in this blog (so much talk about your boyfriend, the dog etc). It's only fair for your readers . . . to get a whiff that the truth may be more complex. I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make. I will be watching with interest and schadenfreude.

Well now. That’s something. And then this follow-up:

The reason I was led to respond to this review - and I have never done something like this before - is the sheer vindictive lunacy of the accusations levelled against me. My response may seem deranged, but only if you hold in mind two things: the book I've written and what the reviewer said about it. The gap is so large that this goes way beyond a casual and quite understandable case of a reviewer not liking a book. Everyone is allowed their own taste and I'd be the last person to force a consensus. However, there's a point at which a review becomes so angry, cruel and mean-spirited that perspective just disappears and one is into new and uncharted terrain. I'm responding to this review as a way of proposing that forgiveness is perhaps not always the only option when the provocation has been enormous.

Goodness. I didn't even think it was that harsh a review. De Botton also made his displeasure known through Twitter — though apparently he removed those tweets — and he isn't the only one:

Novelist Alice Hoffman was so enraged last weekend by a lacklustre review in the Boston Globe - her new novel, The Story Sisters, apparently "lacks the spark of [her] earlier work" - that she tweeted furiously: "Roberta Silman in the Boston Globe is a moron. How do some people get to review books? Now any idiot can be a critic." She completed a comprehensive act of revenge by tweeting Silman's phone number and email address so her followers could "tell her what u think of snarky critics".

Instant communication means, among other things, the ability to instantly say things that you may well regret for the rest of your life. I don't think Hoffman and de Botton exactly shine in these exchanges. My own view, as someone who has written negative reviews and been on the receiving end of them, is that if you want to put your thoughts before the public and be paid for it, you simply have to accept, as part of the deal, that some people won't like your writing. When your response to a negative review is to shout for all the world to hear that the reviewer is an “idiot,” or, worse yet, you tell the reviewer directly that “I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make” — well, you simply give the impression that you are full to overflowing with preening self-regard.

Of course it hurts to have a book you’ve slaved over slammed or dismissed. And in those cases there’s nothing wrong with letting off steam with your family or friends. I think “dismissed” is probably worse than “slammed”: among the responses to my books, the one that most bothered me was Adam Gopnik’s cursory kiss-off in The New Yorker of my biography of C. S. Lewis, and I may have made the odd unkind comment about Gopnik over pints with my buddies. However, I can honestly say that I do not hate Adam Gopnik and do not want to see his career destroyed. And more important, I didn't share my every uncharitable thought with the whole world. Some websites may be disappearing, but this much is for sure: if you’ve said anything online that really, really embarrasses you, it’ll be available forever.


  • Ari Schulman said...

    Wow. I had been thinking of reading de Botton's work after I finish Matthew Crawford's new book. But now I'm not so sure -- something tells me it will be a little more heavy on the sorrow than the pleasure side.

  • It's remarkable that such intelligent people can have so little situational awareness as to not recognize how bad they look.

    But when you get a negative (or dismissive) review, do you ever write the person and poke back? Done in a certain way, it seems like a perfectly respectable thing to do. Done in a certain way...

  • It's weird to feel almost a kind of schadenfreude when someone like Alain de Botton does something as dumb as this. My dumb-as-this things have been less public (so far!) and I'll bet AdB wishes now his was, too. Will he apologize and say it was a fit of passion? Seems unlikely. People always seem to retrench and spill gallons of ink justifying stuff like that after the fact. Is the schadenfreude only because I don't like AdB's writing? Is schadenfreude always a sin?

  • Alan Jacobs said...

    Ari, I'm supposed to *review* de Botton's book! — but since, by AdB's own admission, Caleb has already killed it, I guess I can't do any more damage.

    And Bryan, I have been very blessed in reviews — I can't remember anyone who just trashed something. And when you get a cursory dismissal there's really not much to say in response.

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