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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.)

Technology

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.

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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.

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Regretting the Error

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[UPDATE: Apparently, it’s amateur hour at the New York Times. After fixing the above headline, Matt Bucher observed that The Broken Estate was not published in 1966. James Wood was then only a year old. (And, no, the above screenshot wasn’t faked. I resized it to fit it into the window.)]

[UPDATE 2: More errors in the piece. “More important, the move to a small town seemed to stimulate his memories of Shillington and his creation of its fictional counterpart, Ollington.” It’s Olinger. Also, John Updike was interviewed by the Paris Review in 1968, not 1967. Also, it’s Terrorist, not The Terrorist. It should be “outsized talents,” not “outsize talents.” Good Christ, don’t they employ copy editors and fact checkers at the Gray Lady?]

[UPDATE 3: The Gray Lady has fixed these errors, without “regretting the error.” In the haste of my horror, I added an extra L to Olinger — as pointed out by a pedantic commenter named Albert. This has been fixed. I regret the error.]

RIP John Updike

I have just been informed by several people that John Updike is dead.

Words fail me right now. And I have been lurched over for the last few minutes. Updike meant a lot to me. As much as Westlake, McGoohan, and David Foster Wallace. And I hope that I can bring myself to articulate something in the next few hours.

In the meantime, I will just say that one of my favorite Segundo interviews was Show #50, in which I had the good fortune to interview the man. I will reveal more of the story behind that interview later, and offer more words when I have a clearer head. But this is a major blow to American letters. Rabbit and Bech are now truly dead.

Responding to Tanenhaus: August 13

Sam: Very tepid on your blog. Not hot at all. Am told the men caught another snake nuzzling into Keller’s neck and that the snake responded to your name. Who knew that serpents could colloquize? In any event, a missed opportunity with your latest post. To suggest that only one party can be right in this case is to miss the very particular points that Messrs. Wood and Baker were making. Wood responded to Updike’s passage with an aesthetic eye. Baker rejoined with a clear passion for language. Cannot both be right? To suggest that there is only one opinion on a passage is to have a very limited and incurious mind indeed. Those of us who actually love literature may love a sentence for its feeling while simultaneously loathing it for its bombast. Have adopted this gimmicky Orwell-inspired approach to blogging that I find quite fun, but one commenter lodged his displeasure. Is he right? I would not deign to suggest that I have a superior opinion of my own writing because I happen to have written it. But some may judge it good, others bad. But nobody is “right.” Nobody has the ultimate answer. Did you not learn from Freud, Sammy Baby, that when one presents a definitive codex of human behavior, it will be easily usurped and outmoded in half a century? And have you not learned in your years as editor of The New York Times Book Review that literary criticism or even the casual appreciation of literature is not a matter of being “right,” but of presenting a thread to be picked up by another resourceful stitcher.

AUTHORS: Do You Have What It Takes?

It’s the ultimate reality series, the ultimate game show and the ultimate half-hour of intriguing storylines. The Ultimate Author is an awesome television program packed with entertaining, engaging and interesting events. Each week, contestants go toe-to-toe in a writing competition that tests their ability to develop attention-grabbing content.

Casting Call: June 16, 2007. Fort Lauderdale, FL.

[via gawker.]

Temples of the Ideal

John Updike on the new MOMA: “It used to be said that airports were our new cathedrals, the spires replaced by ascending and descending planes. But they have become workaday and shabby, cluttered with the machinery of heightened security and menaced by airline bankruptcy—bus terminals on the brink, more like refuse-littered marketplaces than like places of worship. The art museums, once haunted by a few experts, students, and idlers, have become the temples of the Ideal, of the Other, of the something else that, if only for a peaceful moment, redeems our daily getting and spending. Here resides something beyond our frantic animal existence.”

Updike to Trade In Comfy Sofa for Expensive Davenport

John Updike has won the $30,000 Rea Awardan award granted to “a living American or Canadian writer who has made a significant contribution in the discipline of the short story as an art form.” It’s good to see that the Dungannon Foundation has gone out of its way to honor a writer who truly needs more cash and awards. It is rumored that Mr. Updike’s interior designer will apply these funds to the east wing living room.

Updike Misunderstood?

The London Times: “And that, I think, explains some aspects of the critical response. They want their terrorists to be explicable in the most banal terms. Kakutani, for example, whines on about ‘factors’ that do or don’t explain Ahmad’s conversion to terrorism. But great novelists know that people do not act according to ‘factors’. Updike’s Ahmad is as clear an illustration as one could have. The public enthusiasm for the book is, I think, a matter that lies far beyond the terms of critical discourse. Since 9/11, the Americans have been seeking authoritative voices to tell them what is going on…..Nothing has quite worked. In now turning to Updike, they are simply looking to a man whom they must sense is one of their finest. What does this snowy-haired sage have to say about it? They won’t be disappointed.”

For what it’s worth, I actually liked Terrorist, despite its narrative flaws. And so, apparently, did Ian McEwan. My own theory for why it was so critically reviled is because Updike dared to be sincere about his underlying humanism. (In fact, I would compare the book’s mixed reception to that of Richard Powers’ Gain, a novel that was slammed by some for reviving a Dreiser-like concern for corporate responsibility.) If one can set aside one’s personal ideology and read the book as an exercise in consciousness, then I think there are aesthetic rewards which excuse the book’s clunky vernacular. (via TEV)

[UPDATE: Steve Mitchelmore offers a different take.]

No More Absurd Than “Courtney Love: The Real Story”

Poppy Z. Brite hates John Updike: “Mr. Updike, I’m sorry you have arthritis. I truly am. Both my grandmothers suffered from it, I suspect I have a touch myself, and I know it is no picnic. Sometimes it’s torture. In spite of everything, I wouldn’t have wished it on you.“BUT WHY, O WHY, O WHY, O WHY, O WHY do we have to hear about your STIFFENED NETHER MEMBER?”

Also, Colson Whitehead hates ice cream, which is a very sad and possibly more troubling thing than damning a writer exclusively on a phrase. Note to all aspiring writers: don’t work in an ice cream shop! (Both links via Jenny D.)

The Bat Segundo Show #50

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Author: John Updike

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Defending himself against obnoxious talk show hosts and ready to move on.

Subjects Discussed: Epigraphs, faith and disbelief, starting Terrorist with a Catholic priest, first person vs. third person, on writing upon Americana, post-9/11 symbolism, humanism vs. pessimism, blow jobs, Christopher Hitchens, the state of the September 11 novel, Norman Mailer, Neil LaBute’s The Mercy Seat, applying “On Not Being a Dove” to Iraq, airport X-ray machines, external sexual imagery vs. internal emotion in prose, why Updike concentrates on explicit anatomical detail, Goths, language, challenging Updike on the BEA speech and the Internet.

Play

I’m Positive That Golf Game Partner Contemplations Are Next for Mr. Asher

Levi Asher serves up a you-are-there report on John Updike and gets all giddy and fanboyish: “John Updike looks directly at me with his blazingly smart eyes, says ‘Thank you’ (I’m not sure if he is thanking me for my brilliant phrasing or because I’ve just tossed him a big fat softball) and proceeds to agree that, while the Rabbit novels are significant to him because they take place in a Pennsylvania small town like the one he grew up in, he is sorry to hear of his other novels becoming ‘passe’. He then lists a few other books he considers his best, and I am very happy and satisfied that he names my personal favorite, Couples, as well as his Scarlett Letter trilogy (Month of Sundays, Roger’s Version, S), which I haven’t read yet but will now check out.

Gray Lady Interview Policy: No Depth Perception?

Chip McGrath talks with John Updike. While the results are certainly better than, say, a sycophantic and humorless conversation with Sam Tanenhaus, one reads this Updike interview wondering whether McGrath was operating on auto pilot. After all, how many times does one get to talk with Updike at length? Okay, so he’s no fan of the Internet, but shouldn’t you give the man some space to ramble at length?

Not only is an observation concerning Updike avoiding cell phones in his novels not followed up on, but there’s also Updike’s self-effacing remark about how he’s “not clever enough” to write a murder mystery that stops short of a full confession. Is this current NYT interview policy? Talking with one of the most distinguished American novelists without latching onto the potential depth he’s feeding you?

Maybe McGrath had a golf game or something that day, but I have to conclude that this was a half-missed opportunity.

Bad Sex Award Longlist

The Bad Sex Award longlist has been announced. And it looks like John Updike, ever the fey pervert, has finally made it into the mix. About damn time, if you ask me. I love Updike to death, but I cannot read any of his novels without that inevitable WTF moment, where an introspective sexual description comes out of left field. (Immediate example that comes to mind: early moment in The Witches of Eastwick where character is preparing salad and suddenly starts comparing cherry tomatoes to testicles without any particular impetus.)

Quick Quickies

Since it is book-related, Paul O’Neill fesses up that the Iraq plan was in place well before 9/11. The first major blow from an insider.

Updike’s first short story: “The moment his car touched the boulevard heading home, Ace flicked on the radio.”

Anybody have any clues on the Key West Literary Seminar fracas? Moorish Girl (and all of us) wants to know.

Six Bay Area ladies talk mystery writing.

A big Blair-like blowup at USA Today. Jack Kelley has resigned.

The Times gives a lot of space to the image.

And an engineer attempts to deconstruct postmodern literary criticism.