Jul 7, 2009

Dear Reviewer, ‘I will hate you till the day I die’

W H Chong — Culture Mulcher

W H Chong

Culture Mulcher


Celebrity schadenfreude* involving an author, and a philosopher at that, elevates it far above the midden material of a Britney or TomKat or Christian Bale fracas. The brow clash of Jonathan Franzen (high) and Oprah (lower middle) brought literary skirmishes into new media. (Martin Amis’ The Information moment in ’94 was a newspaper affair – and how old does that make you feel?)

Now we have documentation of the megaselling philosopher-author of The Consolations of Philosophy in discombobulation. So piqued was Alain de Botton by a more or less crushing review of his new book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, in The New York Times that he responded on the reviewer Caleb Crain ‘s own blog thus:

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 (nice people like Joe Linker and trusting souls like PAB) 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.

And, yes, it was de real Botton. (‘Then the revelation that De Botton had himself hit the Twitterverse to draw attention to the comment thread — before deleting his tweets.’) Oh, that trembling finger on the Send button…

Update: The UK Telegraph reports that de Botton said, ‘It was a private communication to his website, to him as a blogger. It’s appalling that it seems that I’m telling the world.’ De Botton is not a very web 2.0 person, it seems – perhaps he doesn’t spend enough time in the world of work and offices?

But de Botton seems to find it hard to stop while he’s still behind. Now the axis of evil included The New York Times.

Some reviews ‘are just not fair,’ he lamented. ‘The New York Times is in its declining years. They don’t really care, they quite like to cause a storm.’

But he did post a message on Twitter: “i was so wrong, so unself-controlled. Now I am so sorry and ashamed of myself.”

Meanwhile, Caleb Crain has kept mum.

In the UK the book has received mixed reviews. In The Times Naomi Wolf says she was “ready to hurl it across the room” by page 40. By page 95 she was holding her head in misery. ‘The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work shows all too clearly that some projects are simply appallingly matched to their authors. De Botton shines when he is handling pure intellectual history, pure literature or pure theory. But either de Botton himself, in what seems to have been some sudden awkward pressure of social conscience, or an editor who has seen too many reality TV shows, had the ill-considered notion that he should go out into what is very much the real world – the world of electrical pylons and tuna fishing boats and low-income-female focus groups – and do hands-on reporting, which was supposed to lead to meditative exegesis on the meaning of work.’

Too much information: Update 2: DeBotton says he has £7.45 million tucked away, the ‘fruit of 15 years of hard labour selling books which you might find (hilariously) to be utterly “pretentious”, but which clearly other people don’t always find repulsive.’ This was in reply to the author of another article, in The Times. Funny how AdB doesn’t admit he still inherited squillions of €.

PS: the photo of wee AdB is from his website.


*My schadenfreude stems from having been twice given How Proust Can Change Your Life, and finding myself unable to read very far into either copy, being interrupted by my own snoring. Maybe retitle it to: How a Multimillion Heir Managed to Make Proust a Cure for Insomnia. (Btw, quite how someone whose mother, sister and himself inherited hundreds of millions when his father died, and who has never had a dud job in his life can speechify in his new book about being collared into menial white and blues, I don’t know. As P Larkin might unwillingly have phrased it.)

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8 thoughts on “Dear Reviewer, ‘I will hate you till the day I die’

  1. evidently

    In my view too, Adb is definitely readable and I look forward to reading the latest. I think the whole critic thing glanced off Adb at the beginning because he was delivering wide-ranging digestible analysis we could all (I mean all that read and enjoyed) begin incorporating into our way of thinking. This was uncharted territory for non-fiction books and its readers.

    Perhaps his former readers have grown up recognising the freedom to critique the roadblocks, forces, remnant stories in our world, only to use that criticality back on its creator?

  2. whchong

    Dear Ungulate,

    We are all philistines – it’s only a matter of degree. Along with oh about 5700 other highly rated novels, I have not read Howard’s End. But some bits of some things are so famous, the essence of the matter seems a gift for everyone.

    Only connect!

  3. Ungulate

    Hahaha, oh dear, I’ve really exposed myself as a philistine now haven’t I! (Perhaps that’s why I like Alain so much? 😉

    That is a lovely passage indeed and Howard’s End is now added to my ever-growing “must read” list (forgive me, I’m only young!). Thankyou!

  4. whchong

    Dear Ungulate, it’s a snippet from EM Forster’s novel, Howard’s End, the famous passage:
    “Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.”

    “Only connect,” became a humanist motto of sorts – it fits nicely into the feeling that all work is connected – human production as part of Gaia’s world system.

    Gosh spelling that out sure ruined the effect.

    And I agree, Wolf’s review is fairer, perhaps kinder.

  5. Ungulate

    Hi whchong, is there more to come from the above comment or is it meant to end as a thought?

    PS: I found Wolf’s review much fairer than Caleb’s.

  6. whchong

    Dear Ungulate, your last sentence represents a lovely thought. Only connect…

  7. Ungulate

    Wow, this reminds me of the time I went to see There Will Be Blood with my mother. We left the cinema with such wildly differing interpretations of Daniel Day Lewis’ character that I almost wondered whether we’d seen the same film.

    I actually find Alain de Botton immensely readable (isn’t that in fact the reason for his widespread success with “the masses”), and found Caleb’s take on his book “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work” at complete odds with my own. What Caleb calls “mean-spirited” (e.g. de Botton’s description of a half-deaf man with a tendency to splutter) I saw as light-hearted humour and a colourful description of a moment of human interaction.

    I’m not surprised de Botton is pissed – I would be too, I agree it was a wholly unfair review. I think he’s very successfully his idea through the book, that it’s hard for many of us to find real meaning in our increasingly specialised jobs because we’re so far removed from the end result, the actual impact it has on another human being’s life. Since reading the book I find myself often sitting at my desk and pondering the lives of the people who played some role in putting my keyboard together, and feeling a little bit more excited about some of the more dreary aspects of my own job by imagining the very end result.

  8. deccles

    De Botton is immensely unreadable. No matter how interesting or great the idea if it can’t be communicated then surely it’s the job of the critic to record that.

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