I'm Torn: Alice Hoffman's "Twitter Controversy"

As a writer, you need to be prepared for other people to take a hard look at your work and say what they think. In today's media climate, the writer being examined seems to lose all right to defend himself when awful things are written. If they ignore the comments, the bad reviews, negative press, incorrect assumptions, or downright lies can become ubiquitous; if they respond, the writer is suddenly a pitiful, despicable, egomaniac who views herself as the second-coming of Geoffrey Chaucer and therefore must be treated like garbage for the foreseeable future.

Enter Alice Hoffman, stage Twitter. Hoffman is a notable author in the highly misunderstood genre known as magical realism. Much like urban fantasy, many non-authors rely on these two categories to provide a simple explanation for a book they don't understand. In the simplest way, much of Hoffman's novels, young adult, and child literature deals with unnatural (fantastic, or "magical") occurrences happening in an otherwise normal setting. Her best known work, solely because of the film adaptation, is most likely Practical Magic.

So what happened to make Gawker go a little nutty over an author?

Twitter happened. That's what. Alice Hoffman decided to respond to a negative review from her local newspaper. It wasn't just a negative review: it was the only negative review her new book received (allegedly, I'm not fact-checking that). So, she went on Twitter and criticized the critic, Roberta Silman.

Fine. That doesn't seem too bad.

Wait...there's more than one tweet. Oh, fuck.

The first tweet is the one that leads me to want to defend Hoffman here. If Silman really did publish basically the entire plot as a major portion of her review, that's stupidity. It's like when the back cover of the book (Breathers: A Zombie's Lament, por ejemplo) is the entire plot of the novel. That is a disservice to the reader, the writer, the publishing house, everyone who has a stake in the book, and just plain lazy writing. As many have already pointed out: summarizing the plot and saying "I don't like it" is a book report; focusing on analysis of the writing, who the book might interest, and what merit exists (among other things) is a review.

Of course, had Hoffman stopped there (the "moron" inclusion was probably uncalled for and would have sent sites like Gawker off anyway), there would most likely be no issue. But she didn't. Of course.

Hoffman then went on to criticize:

  • The Boston Globe for not having a book review section
  • Roberta Silman for not being a super-famous novelist reviewing her book
  • Her "hometown" of Boston for publishing a secondary headline story about a dog over her review
  • Someone responding to her on Twitter
  • Men, for enforcing gender stereotypes
  • The world, for mocking the validity of writers
  • Favoritism/Non-Bias Dichotomy - for intentionally discouraging the efforts of a "hometown girl"
  • Silence, for not getting into trouble by keeping your trap shut and your fingers mittened
  • Editors, for not stopping reviewers from publishing reviews that give away the plot
  • The public, for responding to her actions the same way she responded to a reviewer
  • The public, for daring to criticize her for posting someone's phone number and e-mail to encourage them to call and complain about a review
  • Gawker, for claiming the review said nice things about her as a writer even though it was not a favorable review

See, here's where I have the problem. I think writers put their work out to the public to begin a dialogue. Critics are the first ones who get a chance to respond back. At some point, writers lost the right to respond to the public and explain what they were doing. To me, if the work requires that much explanation, the fault lies with the writer. We can all laugh at William Faulkner refusing to change one of his novels at the request of an editor to be clearer because Faulkner himself didn't understand what, exactly, he wrote in the confusing passage, but it is a significant problem. If I can't understand a thing of what I'm reading, I'm probably not going to enjoy myself and probably won't even finish the book; I'm too much of a gentleman (perhaps even a paranoid pussy, if I go that far) to dare return the book to the store to get my money back in that circumstance.

As much as we would like everyone to love our work and respond in an enthusiastic way, it doesn't always happen. I've written horror stories, sent them off to publications, and received inflammatory letters accusing me of writing pornography with not a tense or scary moment to be seen; others see the same stories and are blown away. Am I flying off the handle and blasting the editor/intern at the publication for not getting my work? Criticizing them for having the courage to say what they believe? I'd rather receive a truthful, negative response than a form comment or kitten-gloves over my work. If I'm criticized, I learn to improve. If I'm told everything's coming up Robert and people should bow before my prosaic abilities, I have nothing to work off of and won't improve.

I completely understand where Alice Hoffman is coming from, but I cannot agree with her response. To me, saying "They don't like me, so you call up and say how much you don't like them" is no more valid than writing a plot summary and calling it a review. Both are beneath the capabilities of accomplished and talented writers.

Short Post: Geek Love, or How Good I Am At Repressing Horrifying Content

Opening Today: 26 June 2009