Author photo courtesy of Deborah Feingold
"The author doesn’t deliver."
That short clause, printed yesterday in the book review section of The Boston Sunday Globe, has today sparked a swirling debate over the relationship between writers and critics in the digital age. The author in question is Alice Hoffman, whose latest novel, "The Story Sisters," was recently released to mild reviews.
Writing in The Washington Post, Wendy Smith called the book "excessive and over-determined but ultimately so moving that it overwhelms these faults." In the Times, Chelsea Cain said that the novel's "last act grows a bit histrionic and narrative strands are over-tangled, then too neatly tied up, but Hoffman’s writing is so lovely and her female characters so appealing that it almost doesn’t matter."
And in The Boston Globe, Roberta Silman said "this new novel lacks the spark of the earlier work. Its vision, characters, and even the prose seem tired." Each of these three reviews – Globe, Post, and Times – arrived at a similar conclusion: "The Story Sisters" is a solid book from a writer Smith identified as "maddeningly uneven." A solid book, but not without flaws. "Lovely" to read, but not particularly groundbreaking.
Still, it's Silman's critique that seems to have really agitated Hoffman. Yesterday, presumably after reading the Globe piece, Hoffman took to her Twitter account, and blasted Silman. A sampling of the tweets, reprinted with help from Gawker:
• "Roberta Silman in the Boston Globe is a moron. How do some people get to review books? And give the plot away."
• "Now any idiot can be a critic. Writers used to review writers. My second novel was reviewed by Ann Tyler. So who is Roberta Silman?"
• "Girls are taught to be gracious and keep their mouths shut. We don't have to."
• "My single bad review in my hometown. This is a town where a barking dog is the second top story on the news."
• "No wonder there is no book section in the Globe anymore – they don't care about their readers, why should we care about them."
At one point, Hoffman printed Roberta Silman's email address and her phone number – it's unclear how she obtained the latter; the former was printed with the review – and encouraged her readers to tell Silman what they thought of "snarky critics." Earlier today, after a Gawker blogger plastered news of the Twitter messages across the site, Hoffman deactivated her Twitter account.
This afternoon, Hoffman's publicist sent the Monitor a brief statement from the author:
I feel this whole situation has been completely blown out of proportion. Of course I was dismayed by Roberta Silman's review which gave away the plot of the novel, and in the heat of the moment I responded strongly and I wish I hadn't. I'm sorry if I offended anyone. Reviewers are entitled to their opinions and that's the name of the game in publishing. I hope my readers understand that I didn't mean to hurt anyone and I'm truly sorry if I did.
In the literary blogosphere, Hoffman's original tweets have been greeted with condescension. Writing on Entertainment Weekly's blog, Kate Ward said that revealing Silman's contact information bordered on "harassment." Blogger Edward Champion calls Hoffman "the most immature writer of her generation." Over at the Literary Saloon, M.A. Orthofer writes, "You'd figure someone who has been around as long as Alice Hoffman would know better than to complain about what she perceived as a bad review."
And yet Hoffman has her defenders. Here's a comment from the Entertainment Weekly post, attributed to "Zora":
I think in the big picture, Hoffman is being judged way too harshly. So she wanted to vent and rant. Who cares? No one knows why she became angry, but everyone has their moments, for better or worse. People who claim to be her readers who say they will no longer read her books because she got upset are being way too dramatic. I didn't agree with the way Hoffman reacted or her tactics, but for the first time, I saw her as a human being and not just the perfect image of an author typing away in some old house.
My opinion? Probably just a case of Web 2.0 inexperience. Hoffman acted without thinking – and didn't count on how quickly social networks such as Twitter can generate, foster, and fan the flames of controversy. (Disclosure: I've reviewed books for The Washington Post and The Boston Globe, where I once worked.) That doesn't excuse the name calling, but judging by the removal of Hoffman's Twitter account and her apology, we can chalk the whole thing up to a lesson learned.
Was Hoffman right to apologize? Tell us here – or on Twitter.