There is a new attraction at Latitude, the London Literature Festival and other hip gatherings this summer. Eminent writers from The School of Life, the social enterprise specialising in thought and ideas set up last year by the popular author and thinker Alain de Botton will be offering literary and philosophical advice on everyday problems. As de Botton himself once put it: “The words of others can benefit us not only by giving us practical advice, but also – more subtly – by recasting our confusions and griefs into eloquent communal sentences. We feel at once less alone and less afraid.”
Doubtless the timely theme of work and careers will be much discussed at this year’s School of Life sessions. Not only has de Botton just published a book on the subject but he’s also, less happily, provided a useful lesson in how not to deal with a small professional setback.
Reviewing de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work for The New York Times, a critic called Caleb Crain suggested that the book worked better as entertainment than analysis. The problem, he argued, was that the author’s attitude towards those whose work habits he studied, which was sometimes mean-spirited, occasionally spiteful, fatally undermined the project.
The author’s reaction was some way from the subtle recasting into eloquent communal sentences to which he has referred. “I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make,” he wrote on Crain’s website. “I will be watching with interest and schadenfreude.”
It was a horrible blunder on every possible level. Bad reviews hurt. They feel personal because, almost always, they are personal. The business of reading is intimate and impassioned. The literary world is riddled with jealousy, and seething with ambition. Critics make their mark on the world with the blood of authors.
An old hand like de Botton would normally realise that telling a reviewer that he hates him, throwing what looks like a teenage tantrum, will merely advance the career of his enemy. Weirdly, he explained that his words were in a private blog, as if such a thing ever did or ever will exist. Nothing will have pleased Caleb Crain more keenly than the fact that his review caused a great public row.
Yet the incident provides its own little lesson for The School of Life. The implication that those who write and think for a living can draw on a deeper well of worldly wisdom is flawed. Someone who can quote Seneca’s essay on anger has no reason to be more sweet-natured than anyone else.
Not only are those who live in the public eye not wiser than the rest of us but, when it comes to dealing with the pleasures and sorrows of work, authors are clearly and provably less competent than almost any other profession. De Botton’s freak-out rates at the low end of recent writerly huffs.
The American novelist Richard Ford, enraged by something his fellow-writer Alice Hoffman had written about his new novel, took the Colt 45 given to him by Raymond Carver, shot a hole in one of her books and mailed it to her. Last week Hoffman had her own red-mist moment and went into a very public Twitter meltdown after her new book was roughed up in a review.
Authors’ words may, as Alain de Botton claims, make others feel less alone and afraid. Sadly, the therapy works less well closer to home.
Thick or thin? Just what shape are television stars meant to be?
Should there be some kind of weight test imposed on those who appear regularly on TV? Before one of their programmes, would it be wise to issue a warning that it includes scenes of an overweight nature? Perhaps some kind of obesity watershed should be introduced so that vulnerable young viewers can be protected from dangerous displays of porkiness.
That appears to be the implication behind remarks made this week by Professor Michael McMahon of Nuffield Health. Shocked to find that one in eight obese people had daringly confessed in a survey to being “not bothered” by their weight, the professor announced that Britain is “eating itself to death”.
Public figures like Ruth Jones, James Corden, Beth Ditto, and even poor old Eamonn Holmes were guilty of shamelessly making plumpness normal and acceptable.
It seems like only yesterday that the appearance of someone on TV who was less than sylph-like – say, the Scottish singer Susan Boyle – was widely described as a refreshing blast of reality, an antidote to the impeccably trim and toned celebrities who are all around us. It was meant to be a good thing that there was space in the media for all shapes and sizes.
Now the very opposite is true. How very confusing it all is.
Biggs left in limbo thanks to Government’s rule by tabloid
It was depressingly predictable that a weak, tabloid-led Government would elect to show how tough it is by keeping a dying 79-year-old in jail. The parole board may have shown a sane approach towards Ronnie Biggs, but, for Jack Straw, he had committed two unforgivable errors.
Because he is a famous figure in the popular press, his release would cause howls of moral outrage from the usual press bullies. He also failed to grovel in public apology, as is now obligatory.
Biggs’s original crime was oafish and callous. Decades later, the Government is, in its own petty way, responding in kind.