The Blog

Don't Ask Alice

Bad reviews, as any writer will tell you, are the price of doing business. Put your work out there in the world, and you can be sure that someone will rise up and declare "UR BOOK SUX!"
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By now, everyone in Lit-Land has heard about the unhappy affair of Alice Hoffman.

Hoffman, a popular and prolific novelist, was unhappy with the review she received in the Boston Globe, her hometown paper, and took to Twitter to complain, calling reviewer Roberta Silman a "moron" and an "idiot," excoriating her for giving away plot twists, posting Silman's email address and phone numbers and exhorting her followers to "tell her what u think of snarky critics." Like raw sewage, the mess bubbled up from Twitter to Gawker, to the Times and Page Six, with everyone rolling their eyes at the spectacle of a novelist losing it so spectacularly.

Bad reviews, as any writer will tell you, are the price of doing business. Put your work out there in the world, and you can be sure that someone will rise up and declare "UR BOOK SUX!"

But if a run-of-the-mill pan is an expected bump in the road, the hometown diss is sinkhole straight to hell. As Anne Lamott put it in her invaluable book Bird By Bird, it's one thing to know that strangers somewhere are reading a bad review, but it's another to know that your friends and family -- the people in your neighborhood, the people that you meet each day -- are sitting down with their coffee and cornflakes to read that you're a no-talent fraud.

I winced when I read Hoffman's tweets, in part because I knew they'd likely blow up in her face, but also because I could feel her pain.

When my last book came out, the paper where I used to work hired a big-name, big-deal, Pulitzer Prize-winning, Oprah-anointed lady novelist to review it. I'd grown up reading the her work, and to me, having her weigh in was kind of like hearing from God himself on my book's -- and, let's be honest, on my -- merits.

Three days before publication, the review came out. It was not the rave I might have wished... and its sting was sharpened when it ran the day of my newborn daughter's baby naming, a day when I had to stand in front of my family, my in-laws, my friends and colleagues, my entire congregation with all of them knowing that Esteemed Lady Novelist had decreed that I was squandering my talent on foolish, girlish things.

I went through the steps that Lamott prescribed, gathering my nearest and dearest -- all of whom, luckily, were in town for the blessed event -- then going off like an uncapped fire hydrant, casting aspersions on the reviewer's questionable motives, the paper's declining fortunes, the editor's receding hairline... you get the picture.

After a few days of weeping and moaning, I tried my best to forget about it, went back to the book I was writing, and moved on. True, I took an inordinate amount of pleasure when the Times trashed ELN's most recent book, and I still wince when I see her name... but I imagine that, too, will fade with time.

So what makes me different from Alice Hoffman? When I get eviscerated in my hometown paper, I bitch in real time, to my intimates... but, I imagine that, in the midst of her Twit-fit, Hoffman felt like she was doing much the same thing.

Twitter and Facebook are seductive that way. Not only do Twitter's 140-character bursts lend themselves perfectly to the kind of breathless spluttering that's all you can manage in the wake of a bad review, the set-up and the language the sites employ -- the "friends" and "followers" with cute avatars, who post cheery birthday wishes, or pictures of their toddlers -- all of it lulls you into a sense that when you're talking, you're talking to intimates, instead of to the whole World Wide Web.

In this atmosphere, in which a novelist can Tweet an eyebrow threading (you're a braver woman than I am, @juliebux!) and a New Yorker staffer can complain about the high price of a pet chicken's cremation (sorry for your loss, @susanorlean!) and a magazine columnist can allude to his fondness for breast milk (bottoms up, @thejoelstein!), it's easy to forget that you're not chatting over coffee, and that the things you do in the heat of the moment -- posting, for example, a critic's email address and phone number -- will live forever online.

There's no doubt that Hoffman behaved badly... but she's been thoroughly demonized, which is a shame. Earlier this spring, I joined a group of other authors in Cambridge and participated in an annual event to raise money for the Mount Auburn Hospital's Hoffman Breast Center -- named in honor of the Hoffman family and Alice Hoffman herself, who donated an entire book's advance to found it. It was a wonderful, inspiring evening... and all night long, doctors and nurses and breast cancer survivors and women in all stages of their fight paid tribute to Hoffman's years of hard work and generosity.

Even good people can have bad days... and I wonder, too, how much the media's love of girl-on-girl violence affected the way the story's played out. When Norman Mailer grumps about Michiko Kakutani's gender and ethnicity, or Richard Ford hocks a loogie at Colson Whitehead, it's just a fight, without the demeaning prefix "cat" tacked in front. There's still more tolerance for men behaving badly -- or, as they'd see it, airing legitimate grievances -- than there is for ladies who complain.

Which isn't to say that Twitter and Facebook should give writers open season on their critics. Better for us to suffer -- at least publicly -- in stoic silence, instead of complaining, and looking petulant, and drawing more attention to a review you'd rather were ignored. But if you don't have anything nice to say, come (virtually) sit next to me. Eyebrows stinging? Chicken failing? Stupid critic gave away your book's big twist? Fellow novelists, I'm here for you at