The BS Column: Gunfight at the I’m-Not-OK Corral

(Published in the Business Standard, 8th July, 2009)

“Roberta Silman in the Boston Globe is a moron.” It was the first of 27 tweets—short, messages uploaded on a Twitter feed—that the writer Alice Hoffman posted last week, in response to an unenthusiastic review of her book by Silman. Over the next few hours, Hoffman fumed, ranted, and then published Silman’s email id and phone number on Twitter, inviting her fans to “tell Roberta Silman off”.

Apres le deluge, le backlash. Hoffman’s tweets went viral on the Net; facing a growing tide of criticism, the author attempted to defend herself, then pulled her Twitter feed, then issued a grudging, lame apology. Next up was Alain de Botton, reacting to a negative review of his book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. His infamous post on reviewer Caleb Crain’s blog: “I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make.”

For both authors, these episodes were harsh training in the nature of the Net. Hoffman was unprepared for the public disapproval she encountered. De Botton, not accustomed to blogs, assumed that his bitter, angry message was more in the nature of a private email or letter. General rule of thumb for authors: assume that anything you post on the Net is public. Including emails. And if you think you can post-and-delete, two words: Google cache.

Beyond the question of whether it’s wise to share your reactions to a review on the world wide web (short answer: no) is the issue of whether it’s wise to react to a review at all. In 1951, Joseph Stern wrote a dismissive review of Catcher in the Rye for the New York Times Book Review: “This Salinger, he’s a short-story guy. And he knows how to write about kids. This book, though, it’s too long. Gets kind of monotonous. And he should’ve cut out a lot about these jerks and all that crumby school. They depress me.” J D Salinger never responded, and never needed to. Catcher in the Rye has lasted; Stern’s opinion is more or less forgotten.

It is so tempting to respond, though, and between them, Hoffman and de Botton have the traditional reasons for calling out a reviewer who’s displeased an author. There’s the “Who the hell is X?” argument, often used by an author who says s/he deserves to be reviewed by a peer/fellow writer. This is just plain wrong for books of general interest; your readers are not going to be limited to a circle of your peers, and most decent reviewers have built their own set of critical skills.

There’s the “I put in so much hard work” argument, also specious—the reviewer or reader is not obliged to note the quantity of blood, sweat and tears that go into a book; it will always be the quality of the work that counts. And there’s the thing that gets to a lot of authors, and publishers—it hurts to be criticised. Most authors want approval, period; and many publishers have to work hard to reign in the impulse to defend the author from what they see as an unfair or specious review.

The single biggest complaint authors make is that the review is somehow slanted, a personal attack—the reviewer has reacted more to the author’s reputation, his or her fame, his or her personality, than to the book. A fascinating experiment from Fourth Estate, The Anonthology, offers a look at what might happen if you read a story just as a story, with no reference to the author.

The Anonthology is a selection of stories written by various authors—Joyce Carol Oates, Chimamanda Adichie, Philip Hensher among them—and invites you to guess who wrote what. It changes the reading experience, to read without prejudice or expectation, to see each piece as unfamiliar, contextless. However, the one time a publisher attempted to ensure fair reviews by sending out books in plain black covers, without blurbs or authors’ names, the experiment failed—neither reviewers nor authors would back it.

So how does an author deal with an unfair book review? In Reading Myself and Others, Philip Roth includes a letter he wrote to Diana Trilling after she reviewed Portnoy’s Complaint. Roth’s letter is 2,000 words long—and he never sent it. He offers five reasons for not mailing the letter—the author does not wish to appear to be piqued, writing the letter is sufficiently cathartic, it is unlikely that the critic will change her mind, loved ones suggest you shouldn’t.

It’s Roth’s fourth reason that should be memorised by all authors, even the genuinely aggrieved: “Where is it engraved in stone that a novelist shall feel himself to be ‘understood’ any better than anyone else does?”





4 responses to “The BS Column: Gunfight at the I’m-Not-OK Corral”

  1. Weirdmonger Avatar

    Is it possible to name the publisher who previously produced anonymous fiction that failed.I am interested as I am the editor/publisher of

  2. Marginalien Avatar

    Hmm. I read Alain de Botton's responses at the link posted by Madhu M (the first part only) but I remain unconvinced: critics cannot afford to step daintily around the toes of authors, because authors' toes are always going to be more sensitive than they need to be. The pain of being trashed must be endured in order to savour the pleasure of an honest, positive review!However "sweet and patient" de Botton appeared to be when Carolyn Kellogg met him, he really did post a harsh message at Crain's blog, so we must conclude that he, like the rest of us, contains a well of darkness that just happened to overflow when he read Crain's comments. I say this as an author and critic, and I know perfectly well what it's like to have my work trashed: my recent novel ESCAPE has been almost universally disliked by its reviewers. Yet I feel no desire whatsoever to wish any of these reviewers "nothing but ill will in every career move …" — and I am anything but "sweet and patient"! And yes, negative critiques can result in books vanishing forever from sight, sometimes undeservedly. Then again … there can only ever be a handful of front-runners. And there have always been books that have been torn apart by critics only to rocket to the top of the best-seller lists. The system isn't fair but — hey! Wake up.

  3. Nilanjana Avatar

    @Madhu and Marginalien: thanks.. I didn't buy de Boton's defense either. The shock that what he'd assumed was a private act of venting became wildly public, yes; mild regret for his inappropriate response, yes; but nothing he's said indicates that he's any less upset with the reviewer. And "I hate you etc" is not ambiguous; neither is it a reasoned defense of one's work.As an author, you'd be justified in responding to a personal attack, a factually incorrect review or a highly misleading review. But what often emerges in these author-reviewer conflicts is a kind of disbelief on the author's part at the unfairness of it all: how can someone not see the worth of his/ her work, not like it etc? It takes discipline to not respond, and that's why I like Philip Roth's letter, both the genuine sense of disagreement with the reviewer that led him to write it, and the maturity as an author that led him to withhold it.

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