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Caleb Crain v Alain de Botton

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William Crawley | 12:18 UK time, Sunday, 5 July 2009

alain-de-botton.jpgFew 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."

That's what Alain de Botton (pictured) wrote in reply to a New York Times review of his new book by Caleb Crain. His full comment, published on the critic's personal blog, reads:

"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?


  • Comment number 1.

    William, you do Caleb Crain a grave disservice by comparing him with Eagleton, whose review of "The God Delusion" was the product of a very very confused person, well out of their intellectual depth, even with a book written explicitly for the layman.

    I'm not exactly a fan of de Botton (OK, it has been ages since I've read any of his stuff), but face it, his response has upped his publicity, and is likely to do his sales in the USA no harm at all. Indeed, I might now pull his stuff back off the dusty shelves precisely for this. Nor will it harm Crain. A classic win-win, do you not think?

  • Comment number 2.

    Surely for a writer the art of creating is enough - you write because you have to or need to or want to?
    Is his response protective (his writing is his creation) or is he driven by financial gain, or is it vanity? Or a combination of all the above? Do all reviewers have the same attitude / reaction to their creation? Does any thinking being buy a book based purely on a review ? Surely not!

  • Comment number 3.

    There's an old saying here that nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public but frankly, I'd be surprised if this book sold many copies here with or without Caleb's review. Right now the only thing most Americans are interested in when it comes to the value of work is the bottom line on their pay stubs.

    BTW, not having read the book and never having intended to, I'd hazard a guess that Caleb's arrow hit the bullseye right through the author's heart. Sounds like a very insipid subject that's been worked to death more times by more people than anyone can count. So even if it had been well written.... Botton reminds me of a small towner who thought he'd make it big in the big city. In New York City they eat people like him every day BEFORE breakfast.

  • Comment number 4.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 5.

    This is the natural reaction to a bad review, and it's the approximate reaction that every bad review is met with. The difference here is that it was public! For once in society, we have honesty. Isn't that a beautiful thing?

  • Comment number 6.


    On another site, I was thinking about President Nixon and this little diatribe of Botton's reminded me of Nixon's resignation speech. It wouldn't occur to me to characterize it with the word "honesty" although like Nixon's speech I'm sure it was heartfelt. I'm more inclined to characterize it as "pathetic." Someone representing "the intellectual establishment" slammed his effort as sophomoric. Must be hard to take. If he were a true Irishman, he'd go off to some pub and drown his sorrow in more than a few pints and a few games of darts, probably imagining Caleb's face on the bullseye. What did he think he'd written, Angela's Ashes II?

  • Comment number 7.

    Markie, I thought all you fatties in New York ate Twinkies or Burritos (whatever they are) or bagels with oh-look-at-me-I'm-so-precious-and-sassy personalised combinations of gherkins and cheese and dead goat and raspberry jam and baloney (again, whatever that is) for breakfast, washed down with cwawffee. Now you're telling me that it's *bald novelists*?

    My illusions of the Big Apple have been shattered.



  • Comment number 8.

    Mark, I guess I like people who just say what they want to, rather than BS and sugarcoat and nicey-nice. True feelings are sometimes hard to find. Christian Bale wouldn't have wanted us to see his. de Button clearly didn't want us to see his either. But, AHHH, isn't the world a better place when we do.

  • Comment number 9.

    Prince Edwards 'hissy fit' 1987 w.r.t the media's response to his question "well what did you think?" of his celebrity/Royal 'it's a knokout' show. Unfortunately greeted in similiar way to this gentleman's New York journalistic book review. As De Boton is an author of relativeley comparible parental financial security
    one does wonder is there a common denominator in the 'hissy fit' response of journalistic criticism?

  • Comment number 10.

    Helio - have to say - loving your work at the mo lol.

    'Oh-look-at-me-Im-so-precious-and-sassy'- love it :-)


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