That Nice Mr Alain de Botton Can Be Nasty Too!

grey That Nice Mr Alain de Botton Can Be Nasty Too!

It’s just been drawn to my slow-witted atten­tion that the ‘pop­u­lar philo­spher’ and pro­fes­sion­ally nice Alain de Botton last month had an hil­ari­ous hissy fit over a crit­ical review of his latest offer­ing ‘The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work’ by Caleb Crain in the New York Times.

Now, none of us writer types like bad reviews — and I’ve penned a tart note or two myself in the past, know­ing full well that such things are ‘not done’. But Mr de Botton is fam­ous for being so incred­ibly nice and proper and pointy-headed and hov­er­ing above the dirty world the rest of us actu­ally have to live — and work - in. He has made a career out of offer­ing us poor mor­tals his Zen-like insights into such human pur­suits as ‘Love’ and ‘Travel’, and ‘Status’, and ‘Happiness’ — usu­ally deploy­ing the regal ‘we’ in place of the vul­gar, egot­ist­ical ‘I’. 

So you can ima­gine it caused quite a stir when he stooped to flam­ing the NYT reviewer on his blog. ‘I will hate you until I die’, he railed.

It may be the most inter­est­ing, most lively thing he’s ever writ­ten.  What’s more, it’s free — and he appears be say­ing now that he thought it was only going to be seen by Caleb.  So here’s the full text (note the curi­ous emphasis he puts on the idea of ‘nice people’):

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 [sic] 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.’

Of course, the real schaden­freude has been every­one elses’ shame­less joy at the sight of someone so airy-fairy get­ting his knick­ers in such a furi­ous twist.  Mr Nice being unmasked as Mr Nasty.  With a touch of ‘Every Breath You Take’ stalker­ish­ness thrown in (‘…in every career move you make.  I will be watching.…’).

That and the refresh­ingly child­ish spite­ful­ness of the incred­ibly wise and thought­ful de Botton, even as he is admon­ish­ing the reviewer to ‘grow up’.

But what were the ‘manic’ and ‘extraordin­ary’ and ‘daft’ and ‘per­verse’ accus­a­tions lev­elled against de Botton?  In a polite and almost exas­per­at­ingly bal­anced review Crain dared to sug­gest that de Botton had been a bit sniffy about some of the people he inter­viewed — de Botton com­plained for example that one interviewee’s house ‘smelled strongly of freshly boiled cab­bage or swede’.  Or swede.  Deft touch that — show­ing us that Alain isn’t pre­ju­diced against cab­bage, just pro­ley veget­ables in gen­eral.  (Even in his flam­ing of the reviewer for men­tion­ing this, he’s still wrink­ling his nose: ‘…it’s only fair for your read­ers… to get a whiff of some­thing more complex’.)

So you can only ima­gine what Nice Alain made of this rather less polite review by Nasty Mark  a few years ago for the Independent on Sunday, which took his book ‘Status Anxiety’ to task for the fact that  it nowhere addresses the author’s own status or his anxi­ety about what people think about it (his father was one of the richest men in Europe — his mother is one of the richest in the UK, ranked not far below the Queen): 

Precisely because the author is such a polite, learned and charm­ing writer with a fine appre­ci­ation for his­tory, lit­er­at­ure and the arts which he is so very gen­er­ously keen to share with us, he never expli­citly touches on the sub­ject of his own status, or his own anxi­ety about what the world thinks of him. Despite the fact that he must be entirely and pain­fully aware of exactly what people whinge about when his name is men­tioned, and that it has prob­ably ever been thus since Harrow. This is a shame, since it would have made his beau­ti­fully writ­ten but baff­lingly point­less and aim­less book, which claims to deal with some­thing as real and worldly and dirty as status, rather more read­able and infin­itely more relevant.

Actually, we don’t have to ima­gine what Nice Alain made of it.  Following the review, The Independent on Sunday books desk received an irate email marked ‘For Publication’ from a reader which spanked my bot­tom soundly, tak­ing me to task in very sim­ilar terms to the Botton post, decry­ing as I recall, my ‘lack of respons­ib­il­ity’ and my dis­grace­fully ‘ad hom­inem’ review. And most of all, the fact I’m not Nice.

Unfortunately, the let­ter writer had neg­lected to delete the bit at the bot­tom of the email from an earlier for­ward­ing which read: ‘Alain — is this OK?’

That’s the ter­rible thing about the Interweb.  It brings you down to the same level as every­one else. Which isn’t ter­ribly Nice.

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