Alain de Botton Clarifies the Caleb Crain Response

(This is the first of an interconnected two part response involving Alain de Botton. In addition to answering my questions, Alain de Botton was very gracious to send along this essay.)

In last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, Caleb Crain reviewed Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. While regular NYTBR watchers like Levi Asher welcomed the spirited dust-up, even Asher remained suspicious about Crain’s doubtful assertions and dense prose.

debotton2But on Sunday, de Botton left numerous comments at Crain’s blog, writing, “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.”

As Carolyn Kellogg would later remark, this apparent enmity didn’t match up with the sweet and patient man she had observed at an event. While de Botton hadn’t posted anybody’s phone number or email address, as Alice Hoffman had through her Twitter account, de Botton had violated an unstated rule in book reviewing: Don’t reply to your critics.

But the recent outbursts of Hoffman, de Botton, and (later in the week) Ayelet Waldman — who tweeted, “The book is a feminist polemic, you ignorant twat” (deleted but retweeted by Freda Moon) in response to Jill Lepore’s New Yorker review — have raised some significant questions about whether an author can remain entirely silent in the age of Twitter. Is Henrik Ibsen’s epistolary advice to Georg Brandes (“Look straight ahead; never reply with a word in the papers; if in your writings you become polemical, then do not direct your polemic against this or that particular attack; never show that a word of your enemies has had any effect on you; in short, appear as though you did not at all suspect that there was any opposition.”) even possible in an epoch in which nearly every author can be contacted by email, sent a direct message through Twitter, or texted by cell phone?

I contacted de Botton to find out what happened. I asked de Botton if he had indeed posted the comments on Crain’s blog. He confirmed that he had, and he felt very bad about his outburst. I put forth some questions. Not only was he extremely gracious with his answers, but he also offered a related essay. Here are his answers:

First off, did you and Caleb Crain have any personal beefs before this brouhaha went down? You indicated to me that you found your response counterproductive and daft. I’m wondering if there were mitigating factors that may have precipitated your reaction.

I have never met Mr. Crain and had no pre-existing views. The great mitigating factor is that I never believed I would have to answer for my words before a large audience. I had false believed that this was basically between him and me.

What specifically did you object to in Crain’s review? What specifically makes the review “an almost manic desire to bad-mouth and perversely depreciate anything of value?”

My goal in writing The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work was to shine a spotlight on the sheer range of activities in the working world from a feeling that we don’t recognise these well enough. And part of the reason for this lies with us writers. If a Martian came to earth today and tried to understand what humans do from just reading most literature published today, he would come away with the extraordinary impression that all people spend their time doing is falling in love, squabbling with their families — and occasionally, murdering one another. But of course, what we really do is go to work…and yet this ‘work’ is rarely represented in art. It does appear in the business pages of newspapers, but then, chiefly as an economic phenomenon, rather than as a broader ‘human’ phenomenon. So to sum up, I wanted to write a book that would open our eyes to the beauty, complexity, banality and occasional horror of the working world — and I did this by looking at 10 different industries, a deliberately eclectic range, from accountancy to engineering, from biscuit manufacture to logistics. I was inspired by the American children’s writer Richard Scarry, and his What do people do all day? I was challenged to write an adult version of Scarry’s great book.

The review of the book seemed almost willfully blind to this. It suggested that I was uninterested in the true dynamics of work, that I was interested rather in patronising and insulting people who had jobs and that I was mocking anyone who worked. There is an argument in the book that work can sometimes be demeaning and depressing — hence the title: Pleasures AND Sorrows. But the picture is meant to be balanced. On a number of occasion, I stress that a lot of your satisfaction at work is dependent on your expectations. There are broadly speaking two philosophies of work out there. The first you could call the working-class view of work, which sees the point of work as being primarily financial. You work to feed yourself and your loved ones. You don’t live for your work. You work for the sake of the weekend and spare time — and your colleagues are not your friends necessarily. The other view of work, very different, is the middle class view, which sees work as absolutely essential to a fulfilled life and lying at the heart of our self-creation and self-fulfilment. These two philosophies always co-exist but in a recession, the working class view is getting a new lease of life. More and more one hears the refrain, ‘it’s not perfect, but at least it’s a job…’ All this I tried to bring out with relative subtlety and care. As I said, Mr. Crain saw fit to describe me merely as someone who hated work and all workers.

Caleb Crain’s blog post went up on Sunday. You responded to Crain on a Monday (New York time). You are also on Twitter. When you responded, were you aware of Alice Hoffman’s Twitter meltdown (where she
posted a reviewer’s phone number and email address) and the subsequent condemnation of her actions?

I was not aware.

Under what circumstances do you believe that a writer should respond to a critic? Don’t you find that such behavior detracts from the insights contained within your books?

I think that a writer should respond to a critic within a relatively private arena. I don’t believe in writing letters to the newspaper. I do believe in writing, on occasion, to the critics directly. I used to believe that posting a message on a writer’s website counted as part of this kind of semi-private communication. I have learnt it doesn’t, it is akin to starting your own television station in terms of the numbers who might end up attending.

You suggested that Crain had killed your book in the United States with his review. Doesn’t this overstate the power of the New York Times Book Review? Aren’t you in fact giving the NYTBR an unprecedented amount of credit in a literary world in which newspaper book review sections are, in fact, declining? There’s a whole host of readers out there who don’t even look at book review sections. Surely, if your book is good, it will find an audience regardless of Crain’s review. So why give him power like that?

The idea that if a book is good, it will find an audience regardless is a peculiar one for anyone involved in the book industry. There are thousands of very good books published every year, most are forgotten immediately. The reason why the publishing industry invests heavily in PR and marketing (the dominant slice of the budget in publishing houses goes to these departments) is precisely because the idea of books ‘naturally’ finding an audience isn’t true. Books will sink without review coverage, which is why authors and publishers care so acutely about them — and why there is a quasi moral responsibility on reviewers to exercise good judgement and fairness in what they say.

The outlets that count when publishing serious books are: an appearance on NPR, a review in the New Yorker and the New York Times Book Review. There are of course some other outlets, but they pale into insignificance besides these three outlets. Of the three, the New York Times Book Review remains the most important.

Hence I don’t for a moment over-estimate the importance of Mr Crain’s review. He was holding in his hands the tools that could make or break the result of two to three years of effort. You would expect that holding this sort of responsibility would make a sensible person adhere a little more closely to Updike’s six golden rules.

In the wake of Updike’s death, partly as a tribute to him, my recommendation is that newspapers all sign up to a voluntary code for the reviewing of books. This will help authors certainty, but most importantly it will help readers to find their way more accurately towards the sort of literature they’ll really enjoy.

If you were to travel back in time on Sunday morning and you had two sentences that you could tell yourself before leaving the comment, what would those two sentences be?

Put this message in an envelope, not on the internet.


  1. A fresh wind is blowing gently, gently at the musty web of traditional lit affinities/ power klatsches/ style mafias… and the old white spiders are scurrying.

    “I think that a writer should respond to a critic within a relatively private arena. I don’t believe in writing letters to the newspaper. I do believe in writing, on occasion, to the critics directly.”

    Not everyone agrees with this. An articulate, heated (and therefore sincere) exchange between intelligent enemies can be rich/ enriching. The over-mediated speech of Commerce (and Politics) is an empty form.

    Make your case in a public forum: it should be part of the job. Resting on your laurels in an ivory tower of your agent-and-publisher’s making won’t do. Even Nabokov swung hard at silly Wilson… right in front of everyone. Are you fancier than Nabokov?

  2. I have to say I don’t understand the argument. Either something is acceptable on any arena or it is not.
    I didn’t mind the comments, and if anything found them funny. However, if I had written them I would perhaps have wanted to apologise for their strength at a later date, which it appears Alain didn’t want to.

  3. It seems odd that his only regret – after wishing Crain “nothing but ill will in every career move you make” is to have made these very unpleasant comments in public. He regrets that others have read them. Not that he was vicious and cruel himself. How would you feel having an independently wealthy and extremely powerful figure in your industry wishing failure upon you?

    For what it’s worth, many of Crain’s objections seemed legit to me.

  4. I’ve not read de Botton’s book, but I wonder whether he acknowledges that even his specific project has, in a sense, been undertaken before; even leaving out ancient Henry Mayhew, we’ve got Studs Terkel’s Working decades ago, and John and Marisa Bowe and Sabine Streeter’s Gig quite recently.

    And there is at least some literature out there that takes account of our work lives. Off the top of my head: the granddaddy of them all, “Bartleby the Scrivener”; Orwell’s bookshop scenes in Keep the Aspidistra Flying; James Gould Cozzens’s WWII novel Guard of Honor; and of our current office-bound life, Ed Park’s Personal Days and Joshua Ferris’s And Then We Came to the End. {Actually, now that I go looking, this is a solid roundup of fiction about work.}

  5. It isn’t that Botton was “interested… in patroni[z]ing and insulting people who had jobs.” It wasn’t intentional. It’s just bred in the bone for this rich intellectual author. He wasn’t “mocking anyone who worked,” just the “illiterate Indian Ocean sailors” and “swede”-fancying career counsellors he profiled. Somebody else who ends up being mocked is Botton himself.

    Anyone who cannot detect the snobbery and indeed condescension in the book must be a condescending snob. But who bakes their cookies, clubs their tuna to death, balances their books, and outfits their “aeroplane” interiors?

  6. […] Talk about meta. Authors have long responded to their critics — in person, through the mail and on the letters pages of book reviews. Now, in the age of online social media, such responses are immediately amplified to the world. The novelist Alice Hoffman discovered last weekend that a few angry outbursts on Twitter could ricochet through the literary biosphere within minutes. Alain de Botton followed suit after posting a harsh comment on the blog of Caleb Crain, who had reviewed Mr. de Botton’s latest work, “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work,” for The New York Times Book Review. Mr. de Botton didn’t like the review, and fired back: “I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make.” Ouch. The literary blogger Edward Champion gave Alain de Botton ample opportunity to explain himself. […]

  7. Alain de Botton Is Sorry, Sort of…

    If he could go back in time, he would “put this message in an envelope, not on the Internet.”…

  8. […] In an interview with Ed Champion, Alain de Botton — the author who inadvisably left angry comments on the personal blog of the New York Times Book Review critic who slammed his book last Sunday — says that if he could go back in time, he’d tell himself, “Put this message in an envelope, not on the Internet.” [Ed Champion] […]

  9. This all is news to me, so I come to it not having heard anything about it before reading this blog. I read the review by Mr. Crain and it led me to put a hold on Mr. de Bottom’s book at the public library — a non-book-buyer’s (or a cheapskate’s) equivalent of a purchase. Yes, the review was pretty bad, but for me, the reviewer made the book sound interesting enough that I wanted to see it for myself.

    Our reptilian brain is at work in these impulsive responses. I’ve done it, too, both on blogs and in email. It was so much easier to rely on the difficulty of writing a letter, putting it an envelope, finding a postage stamp and affixing it, going to the nearest mailbox, etc. – because it allowed time for reflection and cooling off.

    Having had two books reviewed in the New York Times Book Review – both, I’d say, mildly favorably, somewhat more positive than negative – I have to say neither seemed to have any effect on my meager sales. But that probably isn’t true for well-known writers with major books like this author’s.

    Thanks, Ed, for this.

  10. I’ve enjoyed several of ADB’s books but found his outrage unjustified. The reviewer found the author’s tone to be a bit dismissive. So? Do reviewers not have the right to express such reactions just because you worked on a project for a few years? Grow up, man.

    It seems to me that ADB’s response confirms Crain’s sense of his tone in that if de Botton really did respect the workers he profiled (people with menial jobs), he’d understand that being an independently wealthy, well-known author means you never get to bitch about a bad review ruining three years of your precious labor. Please.

  11. Steve Augustine’s comment above has prompted me to wade in again. Of course authors have always responded to their critics, but the rule of thumb is: if you’re going to return fire, you’d better produce something smarter and wittier than the original review. Nabokov’s obliteration of Edmund Wilson is probably the best example in contemporary letters. You almost feel sorry for Wilson–it’s like watching somebody fight a duel with a swizzle stick.

  12. I’m studying philosophy at the moment and a lot of our set texts come from de Botton. I’ve also enjoyed his YouTube clips on early philosophers. So really started to like the guy…He appeared on Australian TV in 2014 (ABC One Plus One) which is the first I heard of this spat, when during the interview he explained his outburst on the fact the review came from a ‘friend’ and therefore was “particularly nasty”. So on seeing the above statement from de Botton, that he did not know Crain prior, I’m wondering “what is the truth Alain’.? I think, because he does feature in university curriculums and is an established author, the reaction was surprising. In the interview in Australia he states that celebrities should be those who, for instance, are great forgivers, rather than the ones we see or look up to.

    All I know is that I’ve had awful things said to me, as have all people, yet I would never “hate someone till the day I die” let alone say this. But if that’s the consolation of his philosophy so be it but I find it sad, as I loved his writings. Hating is prevalent, and destroys the soul.

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