A lesson in how not to react to criticism, courtesy of Alain de Botton.
Last week in the New York Times, Caleb Crain gave Alain de Botton’s new book a not particularly favourable review, in which he accuses de Botton of self-indulgence and snobbery. De Botton promptly heads off to Cain’s personal blog, Steamboats Are Ruining Everything (incidentally, one of the greatest blog titles I’ve ever seen) to vent and unleashed a tidal wave of invectives including the incredible lines “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.”
Let me just say this: wow.
I know this sounds ridiculous and cliched, but I was a huge fan of Alain de Botton’s early books. Essays in Love is an amazing piece of work, showing remarkable insight into the natural cycle of (failed) romantic relationships. How Proust Can Change Your Life was also stunning, and made me look at Proust in a whole different way. After that, though, came The Consolations of Philosophy, and the beginning of his decline. Since then, I feel his books have settled into a predictable, comfortable rhythm, usually because they are written merely as companions to increasingly generic, increasingly audience-friendly TV show. I don’t think I’ve actually finished any of his books since The Art of Travel.
Ignoring the specifics of Crain’s complaints, I feel like they could as easily be applied to any of de Botton’s recent books. There is a certain amount of snobbery. They frequently do veer off-topic in favour of (slightly smug) “amusing” asides. So I’m surprised that de Botton is finding Crain’s review so shocking.
Even more surprising, though, is de Botton’s reaction to his reaction. He points out, rightly, that what he was trying to do is to give authors a right to reply to critics, but worryingly seems to think that the only problem here is that he wrote his comments in a public forum, thinking it had been private (although the three previous comments didn’t tip him off?) In other words, he’s saying that, yes, he acted like an impetulant child, but the only thing he’s sorry about is that he got caught.