Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Jerks in print

Today's post at Guardian Unlimited's books blog squeezed a cynical laugh out of me:

Swedish crime writer Britt-Marie Mattsson's new novel Fruktans Makt (The Power of Fear) has however just suffered a fate worse than death. In a review by the critic, fellow author and poet Kristian Lundberg in the leading Swedish daily, Helsingborgs Dagblad, she learned that her book's plot was "predictable" and that the characterisations were one-dimensional. All part of day's work for any novelist, one supposes, but there was a problem: Mattsson had not actually written the novel in question. It had been signed up, on the strength of an outline, by her publishers, Piratforlaget, and listed on their catalogue, but the author, for personal reasons, hadn't yet completed or delivered it.

Makes you wonder, doesn't it, whether an author who has seen his book trashed by a smug critic might in some cases have a legitimate reason to ask that age-old question, "Did that jerk even read my book?"

Maybe the jerk didn't. Or maybe the jerk read the first half and not the second. Or maybe the jerk "skimmed" and went through the whole book in half an hour. The story recounted above is the only case I know of where it could be proven that the reviewer hadn't read any part of the book in question, but I'm suggesting that this kind of thing happens all the time. Why? Because book reviewers are people, and people often do and say stupid and mean things.

More from the Guardian blog:

Needless to say, Lundberg has found himself in hot water. "The foundation of all journalism is credibility. This is also true of cultural journalism. We have therefore decided that Kristian Lundberg will no longer review books for Helsingborgs Dagblad," declared the paper's culture editor, Gunnar Bergdahl, who made an "unreserved apology" to Mattsson. The errant reviewer was however both less apologetic and frankly candid, telling Svensk Bokhandel magazine that he had "got worked up in advance about Britt-Marie Mattsson because I detest her so very greatly. But let's hope the book is published so I get the chance to say it for real." And some people still think writers and reviewers are all part of a jolly old back-scratching conspiracy!

Goodness. Who would ever think that?

But this post isn't about slamming book reviewers. Authors can be jerks, too, as is amply demonstrated by Michael Crichton's inclusion in his latest release, Next, of a character with a marked resemblance to a Yale-educated, Washington-based political columnist by the name of Michael Crowley. In the book, a character named Mick Crowley is a Yale-educated, Washington-based political columnist...and a pedophile with an unusually small--well, never mind. If you guessed that the real-life Mr. Crowley ticked off Michael Crichton, who then struck back by making fun of his enemy in a novel, you're correct. These two "gentlemen" disagree strongly on the subject of global warming, and the fictional Mr. Crowley appears to have been created in response to a feature article in The New Republic in which the real Mr. Crowley ridicules Mr. Crichton's beliefs. The most recent salvo in this war was fired by Mr. Crowley in his December 14 column.

If there's anything nastier than a writer who uses the printed word to settle a personal score, I can't imagine what it might be. Shame on Kristian Lundberg, Michael Chrichton, and Michael Crowley for sinking to those depths.

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J. Mark Bertrand said...

Great story -- it makes me want to read the review in question. I get the feeling with some reviews that the same text could be used in reference to a variety of books, and all that would be necessary is to change the names. But this takes that to a new level.

Crichton, though, is at least carrying on an old tradition that goes back at least to Dante, who populated the inferno with his personal and political enemies.

pacatrue said...

Great story on the reviewer. You know this sort of thing has to happen on some level frequently, as you say. The deadline for publication is arriving, you are out of time, so you read the first chapter, and spit something out. Rather brazen in this case to never have even seen the book, however.

I did want to say that I don't think Crowley has quite hit the Crichton and Lundberg level, though. His original article was a substantive critique of Crichton's global warming position, which is a journalist and commentator's job, and the reply that you linked to makes a couple (ham-handed) attempts to belittle Crichton's writing, but it doesn't get much more personal than that. That seems a pretty tame reply to being immortalized as a fictional child rapist in a best-selling author's work.

Mirtika said...

I can think of about a billion things nastier than the petty bickerings of people who write. Things involving real crimes and sins and pain and blood and such.

However, I have no problem with a reviewer stating, honestly, that they stopped reading a book at a third or half the way in and thought it was so awful they could not continue. As long as they give one or more good reasons WHY they thought it was so awful that they could not continue. Not wanting to read on is itself a form of criticism: the book did not hold you all the way through.

I wonder--and don't doubt--that this sort of "payback" may have a long literary history. I wonder. Did Dickens or other notables make laughable characters based, discernibly, on people they despised or wanted to ridicule?


Mirtika said...

Okay, just read JM's comment, and I remember bits of commentary on Inferno that stated as much. So, my guess was right. This ain't nothing new. It's just more publicized in our age of instant com.