Alain de Botton on Responding to Critics

(This is the second 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.)


Many people are only just waking up to how blurred web technology has made the boundaries between public and private. It used to be easy to know what a public statement was. It was one written for a newspaper or for a radio or television broadcast. But the web has made it harder to discern what is meant to be public and what private. A huge number of people now read newspapers only on the web, alongside other web windows like Facebook, Twitter and blogs. This equalises the difference between the two, it potentially places a Facebook status entry on the same level as the headline of the foreign affairs section of the New York Times. Simply on the basis of visual appearance, on your screen, there is no difference between the might and authority of a comment in the New York Times, and a note written in a blog run from the proverbial bedroom.

So it becomes hard, as a reader, to measure the degree of intent behind any statement one reads — and as a writer, it becomes hard to judge how seriously one’s words are going to be taken and how large the audience for them will be.

How to review a book

Mr. Crain reviewed my book for The New York Times on Sunday 28th June, 2009. The book was accorded a full page review, a relatively rare honour, and was the third review to run in the pecking order. In other words, this was a prestigious slot in the most prestigious paper in the largest book market on the planet. The power of the New York Times in the world of books can’t be overestimated. A review in the paper can close down a book or make its fortunes. With books pages being cut right across the world, it remains the authoritative place for information.

updikejugglingGiven this power, the onus on any reviewer is to use it wisely, a wisdom to which there is no finer guide than John Updike and his six rules of reviewing as laid out in his collection Picked Up Pieces. Updike’s concern was for fairness. This did not mean that he wanted every book to be praised. Rather, he wanted every book to be given it’s ‘fair due’. The end of a fair appraisal might mean the book was not recommended, but the author and reader could feel that the reviewer had kept his or her side of the bargain. Updike recommended that the reviewer try to understand what the author was up to, enter imaginatively into the project, and most of all avoid any kind of attack that felt ad hominem.

I have been in the writing business for 15 years and have received many bad reviews. However, when I read Crain’s review, it was apparent that it was unusually uninterested in adhering to Updike’s six golden rules of reviewing.

What can one do with a bad review?

There is no official right of reply to the judgement of reviewers. One cannot sue, complain or do anything that counts. One has two options: stoicism (batten the hatches). Or Christianity (turn the other cheek).

There is a third private option. To write to the reviewer in the hope of giving them a sense of their power and influence — and the effects to which they have used it. The hope is that by doing so, the reviewer may with time come to reflect on the matter and when they are next presented with a book, they may (and this is a very hopeful idea indeed) adhere a little more closely to Updike’s six golden rules.

I hence found my way to my reviewer’s website and there, in what I thought was a comparatively private arena, sent him a message that was deliberately hyperbolic and unstoic, the equivalent of a punch in words. The idea was to reveal honestly what effect he had on me.

The problem with overhearing people in private moments is that they don’t follow the rules of civilised society and hence offend our sense of propriety (that’s why the rules are in place). All of us, if cameras were turned on during our moments of rage, disappointment, fear and vengeance, would wince if the footage were then played back to us or – even worse – were played back to an audience of strangers. We value privacy for precisely this reason: it protects us our immaturities from wider display.

It can be appalling for all concerned if the private spills out – for example, if a guest was listening to a marital argument, both the guest and the marital couple would be appalled.

The reactions of others

My altercation with Caleb Crain has attracted a peculiar amount of interest at heart because its nature as a private communication has been misunderstood, both by me – and those looking on. It has widely been taken that I have written back to The New York Times directly to complain. Instead I wrote to Caleb Crain to speak very directly to him and not principally to the world at large. I feel very sorry that this tiff has been broadcast so widely. The embarrassment is as akin to an argument with one’s spouse being inadvertently broadcast to one’s work colleagues or a private letter appearing on a widely-read internet site.

I have been naive here. My conclusion is that one has to be extraordinarily careful about the internet. Nothing that one types here that others could potentially access should ever be phrased in ways that wouldn’t make one happy if a million other people happened to see it. There should only be measure and reason – or else it will be judged along exactly the same criteria as one would judge an op-ed piece in The New York Times.

I continue to maintain that the subjects of unfair criticism have the right to protest and perhaps in heartfelt ways too – they should simply take extreme care that absolutely no one is watching or recording them doing so.


  1. In fairness to Mr. de Botton,perhaps he did think his message to Mr. Crain was private(altho the two comments that were posted before his remarks might have tipped him off there) but if that’s the case, I think it might do a number of writers a world of good to get a refresher course on internet interaction.

  2. Oh I feel desperately sorry for De Botton. Now he not only has to endure a really bad review, he’s also faced with loads of twitterers etc. saying he’s so nasty. He’s not nasty, he’s just wounded and sad – as he might be (his new book is excellent). And as Lady T points out, he doesn’t understand the internet. Mind you, very few of us do, because very few of us are famous. There are basically two rules, the net for the famous and the net for the rest of us. It’s time to acknowledge this vital difference.

  3. Very interesting discussion. But I’m afraid Mr. de Botton dramatically overstates the influence of the NYTBR on book sales. There have been lots of studies of this — and most show an extremely modest effect in the short-term and almost no effect in the long-term.

  4. I can’t agree with Arthur. I work in publishing and the NYTBR has a huge impact. Ok, not for itself, but because people at NPR, on TV and on magazines read it rather slavishly. What snobbish creatures we are hey! When Kakutani murders a book – and she’s done that with poor de B before – it really does have an impact. My suggestion: that the NYTimes now re-reviews de Botton’s book by someone who is more fair minded. Or else runs the sort of reviews of the book that were in the LA times or Boston Globe.

  5. I just read Caleb Crain’s review and I have to say it was not really that bad. With all this hot and bothered hype I thought Crain did some kind of character assassination. But, alas, he simply did not like the book. But, his review is nothing like some of the stuff Pauline Kael used to write about the films [or filmmakers] she disliked.
    While I respect Alain de Botton’s opinion regarding how critics are supposed to review a book I think he needs to understand that critics are artists too. Their reviews are their performance. Updike was a very nice guy and it showed in his fairness. But one should not expect reviewers to hold judgment for the sake of fairness. Critics do not exist to help sell art. They exist to give insight into a particular work of art. Ultimately, I think it would be unfair to the integrity of criticism if we expected critics to merely be part of the publicity for a work of art – or even to be fair.

  6. Thanks very much for this essay! I agree that Updike’s rules would be a great basis for an ethics of book reviewing, though I fear that there won’t be a groundswell to take them up.

    Handling oneself well in public is becoming tricky in these days of eroded private spaces; these writer-reviewer exchanges might help at least as cautionary tales.

  7. […] [4] I also wonder if maybe you don’t entirely understand different styles of internet dialogue and you think saying something like this in a blog comment is like saying it in a letter to the editor. It’s not. You see that paragraph on a letters-to-the-editor page, you’re like, Eh, he should really just let it go. That paragraph in a comment thread: OH MY GOD. SOMEBODY CALL THE WAAAAAAAAAMBULANCE. (Edit 7/2: Yup, you don’t understand blogs.)[5] […]

  8. Alain, THE INTERNET IS PUBLIC. PERIOD. Most blogs and websites are low-profile, but low-profile does NOT equal private. If you want to preserve your dignity in the future, it is essential that you accept this.

    If you wanted your communications to Caleb Crain to be private, you should have emailed him. His email address is available on the website where you left the comment.

  9. >>>A huge number of people now read newspapers only on the web, alongside other web windows like Facebook, Twitter and blogs. This equalises the difference between the two, it potentially places a Facebook status entry on the same level as the headline of the foreign affairs section of the New York Times.

    Oh stop it. Please, just stop it. What about newspapers that come wrapped in sections of comic strips? Just stop now, really.

  10. One: I know my comments will be public because, well, I CAN SEE the other comments from other commenters! When you tweet that others should go to a site & leave comments, you’re pretty much acknowledging their public nature. Gah! Surely he’s figured out, in this our 21st century, that e-mail affords one some measure of privacy (dignity). At that’s the rub: he wants his dignity back and is arguing he accidentally gave it away. You, reader, intruded on a misunderstood private moment.

    Two: Crain’s review isn’t fiendish or unfair. He argues that de Botton’s book fails to live up to its philosophical premise and promise, and he gives examples. It’s not pretty. But it’s not savage. Updike exactly meant a critic ought to know and track the discrepancy between an author’s intent and his practice, which is exactly what Crain did here.

    As a publishing industry professional, I can say with confidence that a house desperately wants reviews in the NYTBR. And the cover review would be nice. That said, we spend an awful lot of time in meetings trying to figure out why said reviews don’t translate into significant sales. Authors live in fear of a bad NYT review, but it’s not the imagined sales cliff that mortifies them: it’s an official blow to the idea (their idea) of the book’s merit. I’m not saying the NYT can decide the relevance of a book, but it sure feels that way to a lot of writers.

    THREE: If a writer (Mr. de Botton?) truly and passionately believes on principle that reviews should not be cruelly stupid, and should follow Updike’s golden rules, I presume that writer would rush to the defense of any writer, stranger or friend, who faces such a review. Only then would I be convinced that such a principle really lives in the heart of the aggrieved.

  11. To MattL, I’ve read both the book and the review, and it’s not just that Crain doesn’t like or recommend the book, it’s that he makes de Botton out to be an intellectual snob sneering at the plight of workers- which, in my opinion, couldn’t be a further distortion of the truth. I feel like de Botton depicts his subjects admiringly, thoughtfully, and truthfully. Crain takes quotes from the book and places them in a different context. It is a wholly unfair misrepresentation of what the book is about and it is obvious why de Botton was so upset.

  12. I guess what I still don’t understand is why de Botton responded with the words he used. He could have taken specific umbrage with certain things Crain said in his review (in other words pointed out inaccuracies or differences of opinion) or he could have stated that he found his tone to be unfair or even restated what he said here about Updike’s rules for reviewing and the care he felt Crain did not take with his review. But to write “I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make.” is just beyond the pale.

    It’s not about the internet being more public then de Botton expected, or the NYTBR being powerful enough to kill a book it’s about de Botton reducing the exchange to five year olds on the playground (or teenage girls at a party fighting over a boy).

    Hoffman was entitled to be annoyed, so was de Botton and so was Ayalet Waldeman but all of them responded to professionally written (albeit negative) reviews with glorified temper tantrums and really there is no justification for that. In the end they made themselves look bad simply by the words they chose and that’s behavior they are just going to have own up to.

  13. ADB raises an issue that always irks me. Authors are always going on about “not reviewing the author” (reworded here as avoiding ad hominem attacks) but in the same breath want reviewers to understand what it is they were trying to do with a book. Only in the broad sense of the concept can someone not in the author’s head understand what it is that they were trying to do. Twilight is not existentialist literature (or maybe it is). A longstanding reviewer who has read everything from the author and his sub-genre might have an easier time of it, but the average reader does not have that background. The reviewer’s job might be to give the reader that context, but that seems to me to put the reviewer in the position of being an advocate for the author and the book, rather than the advocate for the reader. The requirement to review the work is in fundamental conflict with the requirement to review what the author intended the work to be, resolvable only with careful balancing acts.

    Frankly, I think both the review and ADB’s response to it are just fine. If Crain didn’t understand what ADB was trying to do (as his interview answer seems to indicate), perhaps ADB could have written the book better so that there would be no question what he was trying to do. If Crain had an impression of the book, many others probably would have the same impression. The response is great too. Why should a reviewer have any more immunity for his work than an author has for his? Crain characterized ADB’s thinking in the review, and if ADB wants to say “You effed that up royally and I’m hurt by it” I say “awesome!” Books and book reviews are not widgets that can be measured dispassionately.

  14. Please, no more references to “fairness” – a notion for children and conmen. To expect fairness in the world is naive and, of itself, unfair.

  15. Alain de Botton’s excuse for the comments was a little weak, but I belive most intelligent readers would applaud him, at least privately.

    His frustration is understood on many levels, and it’s safe to say that part of that frustration grows from understanding that NYTBR reviewers often praise books by lesser writers for whom the fix is in by way of industry influence or personal connection. Malcolm Gladwell and Junot Diaz are fine examples of stunningly weak writers who have benefited from glowing reviews. Meanwhile, NYTBR takes down other, better writers who are often doomed to get lost in the crowd.

    What a sad world where everyone at NYTBR is a shill, not the least of which is Kakutani…

    As for the plight of the dwindling review pages: have to say, when one can’t depend on getting at least a fair and thoughtful review–if not a sharp, insightful one–the system deserves to die.

  16. I find this entire event–from the printed review, to de Botton’s reaction, to the blog-induced mini fervor, to, amazingly enough, another de Botton reaction, this one after he “slept on it” and thought before he wrote–absolutely amazing. I believe the reason for the interest in this event is easy: we have all been there. In other words, every single person who breathes on this planet has said, at one time in his/her life, and in whatever combination of words, “I wish I could take that back.”

    What ever the thought-deprived “that” was–punching someone in the nose after they hurt your pride, or gushing to a crying girlfriend that you “love” her, or telling your guy in the heat of passion “don’t worry” about the condom, or hanging with friends selling illegal fireworks blocks from oncoming police, or blurting a racist expletive in front of her 5 year-old-son–it was done without clear consideration, many times out of emotion or passion, sometimes out of laziness. Instances like these are what led to the invention of the word “regret.”

    Unfortunately, as simple every-day highway car-crash rubbernecking shows, other people’s grief, like de Botton’s here, appeals to us in a way that taps into the most sensitive of nerves: if for no other reason than our subconscious desire to feel that fleeting-but-euphoric sense of exhaustive relief, the ever-so-brief feeling that rivals a narcotic-induced high. This is, very simply, the internet equivalent of “whew!”, the basis of the bewildering draw of reality TV.

    I think it’s called “life”. Poor de Botton proves that life is an equal opportunity mother-f**ker.

  17. “The response is great too. Why should a reviewer have any more immunity for his work than an author has for his?”

    A reviewer shouldn’t. ADB missed an opportunity to forge a new template for the best (most criticism-subverting) response to a critic. Counting to ten (or ten million) first would have been preferable. But he already knows this. That non-writing Oprah-zit James Frey was better at taking harsh words than the professionally philosophical ADB. It’s Scott-Stapp-with-hookers all over again.

  18. I’m not sure assessing someone’s project on its own terms leads so much to “reviewing the author” as King Rat says. And by no means is the latter necessarily the same as ad hominem attacks! I think, for instance, of Jessica Valenti’s recent book “The Purity Myth,” which unfortunately led to many snarky reviews that consisted mainly of speculations about her personal life and sexual choices. That’s ad hominem, because those details, real or imagined, have no bearing on the execution and merits of the book itself. But assessing how well Valenti – or de Botton, in this case – follows through on the premise set forward to the reader seems to me a fairly unavoidable project — and a relevant one.

    While I have yet to read Updike’s six rules, it seems to me there are a few basic questions fair to ask of a work:

    1. What does the author/artist claim as a goal and how well does he/she do that? [intention]
    2. How is or might the work be received? [interpretation]
    3. What relevant predecessor works/acts/events – both by others AND the author/artist should be kept in mind? [context]

    It’s not fair to criticize someone for something he or she did NOT set out to do, but it is reasonable to assess the merits of a project (for instance, whether it makes a useful or worthy contribution or is sufficiently distinct from works that have gone before). It also seems reasonable to assess the possible ignorance of a person who creates something with unintended but widespread offense (I think of Serrano’s “Piss Christ,” for instance), or the inconsistency of someone who decries ad hominem attacks while perpetrating many him- or herself (Valenti in “The Purity Myth,” for instance). Lastly, I think it’s also fair to show some consideration of tone, including the appropriateness of said tone. Snide remarks and comments about hypocrisy can be very funny – sometimes in a mean way, sometimes less so. One must acknowledge that part of Valenti’s attacks, for instance, is the lively, humorous tone that runs through much of her writing. Crain seems less mindful of the humor in de Botton, however, which suggests a more fundamental misapprehension of the work and perhaps the author.

    Regrettably, I have not yet read “The Pleasures and Sorrows,” but Crain’s review strikes me as singularly silent on several points: how de Botton’s work fits into his larger ouvre, how it fits into the current moment (surely not an immaterial point!) and, perhaps most importantly – as others have noted – how it compares to the larger body of work in the vein of his project. To be sure, Crain was faced with a certain word limit, but the review is mainly a litany of examples supporting the one point that de Botton, in Crain’s view, slips into a mocking tone throughout the book. In light of this, the concluding claim that the book “succeeds as entertainment, if not as analysis” is largely unsupported. One hopes that readers see the limitations of Crain’s review for what they are, and give de Botton’s work a chance in its own right. Maybe the contretemps will even spread word of his book more widely than it might have been otherwise known.

  19. Re: De Botton’s essay, I’m tired of hearing about Updike’s Six Rules. He was a superb critic, and a notably generous one, but when he felt like kicking a writer down the stairs, he was fully capable of doing so. Just check out his review of Stanley Crouch’s “Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome” (reprinted in “Due Considerations”). Every writer who gets a bad review concludes that the reviewer has failed to understand the fundamental point of the book. If De Botton had simply poked holes in Caleb Crain’s argument, he would now have nothing to apologize for. It was the puerile tone (he sounded like he was eager to give Crain a wedgie) that got him in trouble. And yes, he does seem to be in thrall to the NYTBR. It’s still the single most important place to be reviewed, at least from a commercial standpoint, but its monolithic, make-or-break power is much diminished.

  20. What seems astonishing is that ADB does not, in fact, wish he could take those words back – he wishes nobody else knew about them. He appears to think it perfectly sound to respond to a negative review with language usually reserved for far more egregious wounds.

    I haven’t read ADB’s work but his response and selective regret suggests exactly the kind of facile, snobbish attitude Crain identifies in the review. Nor does ADB’s response adhere to the rules he thinks ought to apply to critiquing another piece of writing. One cannot help but wonder if ADB applied that same ill-conceived philosophy to his book-length considerations of other topics.

  21. everyone has been in this position at some point in their life, and it will get worse due to the fact that people are expected to share their facebook with all their co-workers/bosses/partners/ex-partners/children/parents.

    previously the internet had been a place where you could create an image of who you were, not necessarily fake, but controlled, the way we dont put bad photos of ourselves online. This was no different to real life where you choose what you say at work, or to certain friends – you don’t confide everything with them.

    now the line is blurred and we are expected to share everything. our closest confidants we may be communicating to through our blog posts or tweets, rather than the recently devalued (though much more private) email or phone call. We may say in our FB status “god i’m bored, i really hate this job” and some old friend who knows one of your co-workers could pass this along until your boss hears it and you’re hauled into their office ‘for a chat’.

    The astonishing thing isn’t that people in the public eye are being caught in this trap. In the past there was a brisk wall between the vaguely famous and the public, but the supposed power of the grapevine has drawn many out from that cover, pulled them off their pedestal to a degree, so they’re in the same mess we’re in. The astonishing thing is that Alain de Botton hasn’t written a book about it yet: The erasing of the public and private persona… what is left of us?

  22. I’m a massive ADB fan and though this is neither particularly responsible or admirable to confess, I have to say I found his salvo exhilarating. If you’re familiar with his work, you know very well that this is a man steeped in wisdom. Wisdom is his religion. Read “The Consolations of Philosophy.” From Seneca to Schopenhauer, this guy knows where the bodies are buried.

    So to read such a fearlessly pissed off response to Crain’s review; so injurious, so crackling with invective, so puny in a way – I have to say, gave me true joy because it exemplified one of my favorite themes: being a student of humanity doesn’t begin to exempt you from being human.

    I wrote a play last year (my first produced in NYC) that was positively demolished by several bloggers; upended by the experience I reeled with how to frame it for myself. Timidly, perhaps – I turned to Seneca and Stoicism. It didn’t really work. In future, I think I may just follow ADB’s lead, give into my worst petulant bruised pissiness and lash gleefully back!

  23. If you do a little googling, you’ll find that (a) ADB posted on twitter goading fans to leave comments on CC’s blog, and (b) ADB has previously left vicious comments on a series of other blogs that negatively reviewed The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work.

    It doesn’t seem likely that he was unaware that comments on a blog could be viewed by anyone.

  24. Having done some googling, I now discover that de Botton – far from being the amiable normal person I thought him to be – actually turns out to eat small children. He has posted a number of times how he prefers to eat children rather than eat somthing normal like salad. THis is really outrageous and it’s brilliant that the blogosphere is going to be excited about this new revelation. And another thing too, de Botton apparently never flosses his teeth. It’s quite outrageous.

  25. I don’t read the New York Times Book Reviews, I know what I like and, generally, anything by Mr. de Botton is going to find its way into my library – his writing has never let me down. I do find that reviewers and ‘journalists’ of late have succumbed to lowest common denominator behaviour, the need to be provocative overshadows their tasks. After all, they need an audience too, and the methods that are getting attention these days is pretty much based on one’s level of obnoxiousness. In short, I think it useless to let a ratings whore from a dying entity have any influence over what I read!

  26. Schadenfreude, this is all pure Schadenfreude to me, and apparently to many here.

    ADB falls off the stairs, bounces on his head, winces; yet, he would do it again, even if only for for our pure enjoyment.

  27. Not that my opinion matters so much at the end of this long long long and essentially boring list of comments. But here it is anyways.
    Quite honestly who cares if Alain de Botton is mad at a reviewer and said something nasty. Perhaps this will teach reviewers to have more heart. Many seem to storm around these days with the idea in their heads that they will be some iron willed brutal reviewer, the voice of the masses (see Simon Cowell – American Idol) or something ridiculous.
    If Alain did something stupid, let him have his moment as we all do at some point or another. Internationally published authors are people too.

    For that matter he could have been rip roaringly drunk when he posted it. Y’know, just a possibility.

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