Alice Hoffman’s very public meltdown over a slightly unfavorable review of The Story Sisters is one of those pity-and-fear inducing Internet moments. In a series of Tweets (27 in all, according to Gawker), which included swipes at the city of Boston and the publication of the reviewer’s personal phone number, Hoffman showed herself to be, in Edward Champion’s words, “the most immature writer in her generation.”
I’ve seen this kind of meltdown in the business world, where e-mails become more and more heated, further and further from the original affront, until all proportion is lost and one side or the other (sometimes both) begin calling down the apocalypse. It’s an ugly and heart-pounding sight, and stepping in to try to add perspective, reason, or humor is a sure-fire way to be flattened in the carnage. Sometimes the explosion has a cathartic value–Lucy Kellaway offers some great practical advice for the novice oath-taker–but sometimes, especially when behind the anonymous barriers of electronic communication, it simply leads to tears and embarrassment.
As a writer of short fiction, published in obscure corners, I don’t have to worry much about snarky reviews. Sometimes a story of mine shows up in a blog post, but usually if someone bothers to comment on my writing, it’s because they liked it. A short story you didn’t enjoy is probably not worth a comment; a bad novel, on the other hand, is an affront to the reader, who invested far more time in hoping it would turn around.
One of my stories was once singled out in a review at a respected online journal as an example of what’s wrong with fiction on the Internet. It wasn’t one of my favorite stories (though it did make the long list of notable stories for the Million Writers Award), and the reviewer’s comments weren’t far off the mark. I privately thanked the reviewer (because, as Hoffman should recognize, there’s value even in a bad review: the criticism can be useful to one’s future efforts, and contrarian readers may be tempted to see if the review is accurate), we exchanged pleasantries on the value of literature (because writers and critics are really on the same team when it comes to the important things), and life went on. Though this was a pre-Twitter exchange, I can’t imagine feeling the need to “tweet” it (except maybe to offer a link to the review). Remember: your words aren’t you, even if you did labor long and hard to put them in the right order, and a reviewer’s opinion is an unscientific and wholly anecdotal sample of one.
Alice Hoffman’s Twitter account is gone now (check the cache while you can!), so perhaps she’ll be less able to shoot her foot off in the future. But just in case someone else gets the idea that they need to have a tantrum online about a review, consider Iris Murdoch on the topic:
A bad review is even less important than whether it is raining in Patagonia.