Caleb Crain v Alain de Botton
Few authors are fans of critics, but it's rare indeed that a writer will take the bother to reply to an individual review. Rarer still that an author will tell a critic, "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."
"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."
Alain de Botton has since clarified his comment in an interview with Edward Champion. He acknowledges that he made the mistake of assuming that his comment was private, even though it was published on a blog. He also clearly regrets his outburst.
I interviewed Alain de Botton about The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work for the most recent series of The Book Programme and he lived up to his reputation for intelligence and charm. So, I was surprised to find him wishing a lifetime of ill-will upon a reviewer and expressing his objections to a bad review in such malevolent terms.
One can certainly understand why a writer would feel so protective of a book that represents two years of his life and work. Personally, I wouldn't allow a reviewer to dictate the merits of any book, but critics can be helpful conversation partners for discerning readers. If critics are free, as they should be, to tell us precisely what they think about a book, authors, and other critics, should be free to respond in kind.
What Caleb Crain takes to be mockery and condescension in de Botton's book, I took to be insightful observation, within the genre of philosophical journalism, laced with wit and, at times, self-deprecation. All observations are made from a point of view, of course; but that's true of both the author's observations and the critic's. De Botton's book is not, I think, a good example of a writer patronising the subjects he's writing about. Caleb Crain is entitled to read the book differently, but, equally, I am entitled to wonder if we've been reading the same book.
That said, the Crain review isn't the worse review in the history of publishing. Remember what Terry Eagleton wrote about Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion? "Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology." Can you think of better examples of worse reviews?