- The Washington Times - Friday, July 10, 2009

With the proliferation of electronic communication, authors are keeping in touch with their fans like never before. Unfortunately, the same technology that lets writers reach out to readers — Twitter, Facebook, blogs — also lets writers talk to critics.

Or, more accurately, snipe at critics.

In just two days last month, three high-profile authors responded to less-than-glowing reviews with less-than-genteel replies. Ever since a bored Greek complained “The Iliad” was too repetitive, authors have grumbled that their critics just don’t understand them. Now, though, when a writer whines online, anybody can read it — whether the writer meant it to be seen by millions or not.

On June 28, Ayelet Waldman — no stranger to controversy after declaring in the New York Times that she loved her husband, novelist Michael Chabon, more than her children — told followers of her Twitter stream what she thought of the New Yorker’s review of her latest book, “Bad Mother.” “May Jill Lepore rot in hell. That is all,” Miss Waldman Tweeted.

Alain de Botton went into a little more detail June 29. His book “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work” had gotten a brutal review the day before in the New York Times Book Review. When the reviewer, Caleb Crain, posted a link to the piece on his blog, Mr. de Botton responded in the comments section, insisting the review was “driven by an almost manic desire to bad-mouth and perversely depreciate anything of value.”

The Swiss-British author was particularly upset about being trashed in the country’s most powerful book review: “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.”

He ended his first comment strikingly: “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.”

Mr. Crain might have gulped upon reading that curse. But it was nothing compared to what Alice Hoffman had done the day before. Her latest novel, “The Story Sisters,” had gotten a mixed review — the critic counted herself a fan of the author’s earlier work — in the Boston Globe. Miss Hoffman Tweeted in response, “Now any idiot can be a critic. Writers used to review writers. My second novel was reviewed by Ann [sic] Tyler. So who is Roberta Silman?” (Miss Silman, as Ron Hogan of publishing blog GalleyCat pointed out, published her first novel before Miss Hoffman.)

That was bad enough. But Miss Hoffman continued Tweeting, even encouraging her fans to harass Miss Silman, posting the critic’s e-mail address and phone number so they could “tell her what u think of snarky critics.”

(It was ironic that Miss Hoffman was so torn up over a mixed review. After she gave a similar notice to Richard Ford’s 1986 novel “The Sportswriter” in the New York Times, the author and his wife shot bullet holes into a copy of Miss Hoffman’s latest book and mailed it to her.)

Miss Hoffman seemed to think better of what she had done — she deleted her Twitter account shortly afterward. Information, though, is easily saved and retrieved in the electronic age, and multiple blogs reprinted the nasty posts.

In the past, authors might have been tempted to write letters to the editors. At least then, a writer would have to type out the letter, search for a stamp and envelope, and find a mailbox. That gave an angry author plenty of time to cool down. Some still sent theirs — but they usually were read just by the smallish number of people who read that particular publication. Miss Hoffman’s, Miss Waldman’s and Mr. de Botton’s fury could be read by anyone with an Internet connection.

There’s no doubt Miss Hoffman crossed a line in personally attacking her reviewer and encouraging her fans to do the same. A writer who can’t take critiques is in the wrong business — literary criticism involves some, well, criticism, after all. Her off-the-charts response to a review that talked about how well she could write also implies that she has no interest in getting better at her craft and being the best writer she can be.

But is it the case that a writer should never respond to a critic? If any of these three had a case, it would be Mr. de Botton. I read Mr. Crain’s review when it came out and was surprised the New York Times published it. It clearly was one of those reviews in which the reviewer had no interest in giving a fair analysis of the book but rather wanted to show off what he saw as his own talents. I hadn’t read this particular book, but I had reviewed Mr. de Botton myself before, and it didn’t sound as if Mr. Crain understood his project in the least. He criticized the author for being pompous while being so himself.

So I understand why Mr. de Botton felt the urge to respond. He might have exaggerated when saying that Mr. Crain had killed his book in America, but he let readers know what many don’t realize — a single review can carry a lot of weight, but those who write them are rarely called out when they don’t take their responsibility seriously.

Mr. de Botton’s condemnation came off as more measured than Miss Hoffman’s — though he might have left out the part about hating the reviewer until he dies. In fact, rewritten just slightly, it could have been sent to the New York Times itself. The letters section of the Book Review is the first thing I read each Sunday. There usually are one or two letters from authors who feel a review has misrepresented their book. This kind of back and forth is deliciously enjoyable for readers and, when well thought out, can inspire useful debate. That’s what criticism is all about, after all — one person writes something, another comments on it, and intelligent discussion is born.

But then, authors might have no choice but to take to the wireless airwaves. Last Sunday’s Book Review, for the first time I can recall, contained no letters section. Might the country’s most august books section force authors to write spur-of-the-angry-moment missives from now on?

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