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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 to 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 women 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 comment on the NYT reviewer’s blog, 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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16 thoughts on “That Nice Mr Alain de Botton Can Be Nasty Too!”

  1. Mr deBotton isn’t so dense, even if Mark had called him a ‘cone head’ to interpret it literally. Which as Mark says,he didn’t,

    The article wasn’t that offensive anyway; more in fun, given the rarnge of Mark’s howetzers.

  2. Gosh! Another saucer of milk for Mr De Botton….

    I would say, “Who is a big hissy queen?” but let’s leave me out of it…Mr De Botton, if this is the way you deal with critics, then I certainly don’t won’t do read your work… ever.

  3. Whoever you are, and I somewhat doubt you’re the wonderfully wise and large-minded one himself, I didn’t call de Botton a ‘conehead’ – someone else did in the comments.

    As the ‘skinhead Oscar Wilde’ I’m likely to be a conehead myself one day so I’m very careful what I say.

  4. Congratulations, Mark: belated it may be, but I could not have hoped for a more characteristically small-minded snipe at my troubles. The hysterical reaction to the recent débâcle stems from my daring -heaven forfend!- to breach the critical fortifications, and give the Mark Simpsons and Caleb Crains of this world a taste of the misery they daily bestow upon others. The worm, as they say, has turned, and you and your scrivening ilk must now face the consequences of your irresponsible actions.
    As for my supposedly conical head, I can’t help but notice your picture on this blog is conveniently cropped across the middle of the forehead… as Andre Gide once matchlessly observed, perhaps those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw cones.

  5. “[autobiographical information]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. ”
    Are you serious.. relevant! I’ve always pictured de Botton in some common rathskeler, poor as a dormouse, musing with a kind of saintly indifferance on folly of the world. Not good! Relevant, as if Rupert Murdoch wrote an inspirational book about piety.
    (I first read the article when I was 1/2 asleep)

  6. Your observation is surely amusing ; I don’t believe that you’re saying so much that he pretends to be “holier than thou” than that he never demonststrates the quality in his writing. After all, as you say, he never writes in the first person plural, which would seem to preclude that option.

    Since he navigates in the rarified world (for many people) of Proust and manners generally, he has the persona a sort of modern day humorous Emily Post .(That may be going a bit far!).

    One would least expect, in fact I’m astonished, to see him carrying on so completely in the fashion of one who we would least expect to find in an elegant Paris salon.

    There’s nothing mean in your observation, just acute.

  7. It’s not Alain Botton. It’s the people who adore his books. And how they tell him they adore his books. And how insufferable they all become, individually, collectively. Like a little cork-lined cult. Mark – is this OK?

  8. Mark,
    You’re missing the point with old Button. What people love about his writing is precisely that he never pretends to be holier than thou. This is a guy who has written frankly about envy, impotence, going bald, being angry. Far from this outburst to the critic being uncharacteristic, it’s typical of a guy who lives, like Gide said of Proust, without a skin. Now you’re just annoyed that you ever achieved world-wide fame on the back of being nasty to a great writer. You’ll have to try harder next time!!
    PS: I’m no relative!

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