I’ve been meaning to do a follow-up on my post about literary hatchet jobs for a while now, but the story in yesterday’s Gawker about Alice Hoffmann’s colossal dummy-spit (or is that dummy-twit?) is so hilarious I can’t hold back any longer. As the story explains, Hoffman took great exception to what sounds like a classic “mixed” review, and proceeded to slag off the reviewer on Twitter, even going so far as to twit the reviewer’s phone number and suggest people ring her up and set her straight. Hoffman is now backtracking, but it’s a little difficult to come back from “Now any idiot can be a critic”.
What’s particularly striking is that it’s only one of several cases of writers losing their cool about reviews in recent weeks. Last week MediaBistro reported that Alain de Botton (who I once heard a middle-aged lesbian describe as the thinking woman’s crumpet) took violent exception to Caleb Crain’s review of his new book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, taking time out from his clearly hectic schedule to blast Crain in the comments section of Crain’s blog, Steamboats are Ruining Everything (Botton’s killer barb? “I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make”). And in a rather more succinct comment upon a review of her new book, author Ayelet Waldman twitted, “May Jill Lepore rot in hell. That is all”.
Of course there’s a long and (ig)noble tradition of authors slagging off critics. But I suspect there’s a good chance these rather undignified displays say as much about people’s unfamiliarity with the technology as anything. With any new form of communication it takes a while to learn what’s smart and what’s not (ask yourself how long it too you to learn not to email when angry, or to reply all carelessly). And if there was ever a technology for which the old adage, flame in haste, repent at leisure was appropriate, it’s Twitter (at least with Facebook status updates you have some control over who’s listening, and you can quietly delete them if you think you’ve gone too far). Certainly the rapidity with which the story of Hoffman and de Botton’s dummy-spits has spread is a reminder of the capacity of the online world to regulate itself, and of the democratizing nature of the net more generally. Indeed I suspect Hoffman and de Botton’s real crime isn’t being intemperate, but assuming their status as authors gave them the right to be uncivil (that and the fact they look ridiculous).
Of course I would say that. I’ve always cleaved to Disraeli’s famous dictum, “Never explain, never complain”, and while I’ve had plenty of reviews I could have done without, my general view is that it’s not just undignified to get into a stoush with a reviewer, it’s a fight you’re almost guaranteed to lose. At best you’ll give a bad review oxygen, at worst you’ll look petulant and egomaniacal.
Of course de Botton and others might argue that in the new media environment the relationship between writers and critics is altering, and there’s now a place for more direct discussion and engagement. And they’d probably be right, at least with respect to non-fiction, though as I’ve observed above, authors who assume their status as authors grants them any particular cultural authority are likely to be pretty quickly disabused of that notion. Indeed at a very crude level the shift from physical books and newspapers to electronic books and websites is eroding the distinction between the cultural authority of different media, and promoting a situation where what matters is the quality of your commentary, not the publishing house behind you, or your visibility on bookshop shelves.
But I think the situation is very different with fiction. I’ve spent years avoiding explaining my books in interviews (contextualize, expand upon, talk about process, but never, if you can help it, explain them) partly out of a deep, and essentially uncritical unease with doing so, and partly out of a view that to do so reduces them somehow. However often my views about other aspects of writing change, I’ve always believed novels and stories are living things: mysterious, ineffable, prismatic, and that while writers may be required to promote them, ultimately the book will take on its own life separate from them. It’s possible our culture is increasingly inimical to that sort of indeterminacy, but take it away and a work of fiction is inevitably, and fatally, reduced.
For those wanting to read more about the Hoffman/de Botton imbroglio, Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams has a few choice words to say on the subject, and later, on Ayelet Waldman’s intemperate remarks. The Literary Saloon also has views on the matter, as do The Afterword and Edward Champion (thanks to GalleyCat for the links). Likewise Motoko Rich has some interesting reactions in The New York Times. And if you want to see Alain de Botton repenting at leisure, you can read the excerpts from his twitterfeed at The New York Observer.