x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Tweet for tat

The once-private feuds between authors and their reviewers are playing out in spectacular, public fashion on the internet.

In the writing industry, the dynamic between authors and critics is sometimes not unlike the predator-prey relationships found in the wild. One party is hunted, while the other hunts and potentially eviscerates. It's not for nothing that the British writer Christopher Hampton once said: "Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamppost what it feels about dogs." But the rising popularity and viral nature of the internet has allowed the tables to turn. What were once personal feuds played out over furious e-mail exchanges or in the obscurity of industry publications have increasingly become spectacles of mass consumption as authors have taken to lashing out in a public way. The trope of the exiled writer biding time in a tower of silence to await the jury's verdict has been thoroughly trumped by the status update - which in recent months has proven an instrument of oddly personal retaliation.

One of the most recent examples concerns a paranormal romance writer who contacted the FBI after a poor review of her book appeared on Amazon.com last November. One can only imagine that 11 years spent in the police force influenced Candance Sams's attempt to prosecute her reviewer for cyber-stalking. The poster, LB Taylor, a grandmother and housewife, thought that Sams's latest book, Electra Galaxy's Mr Interstellar Feller - about an intergalactic male beauty pageant contest - was "overall a sad excuse for romance, mystery, and humor".

Posting under the name Niteflyr One, Sams replied that Taylor carried the "true mark of a coward", which is "the nature of the hit-and-run reviewer beast". She added: "An investigative agency in charge of cyber-stalking was also contacted-I'm told that a felony 'might' have been committed. If that was the case I WILL file charges against the person who made that threat." Sams has subsequently deleted all her posts.

But it's not just romance-novel melodrama; Amazon also invites the diatribes of esteemed authors. Incensed by reviews of Blood Canticle (The Vampire Chronicles) in 2004 and affected by the death of her husband in the same year, Ann Rice posted a 1,200-word response to her reviews that were meant to draw blood. "Your stupid, arrogant assumptions about me and what I am doing are slander-you have used this site as if it were a public urinal to publish falsehoods and lies," she wrote. One senses Rice and Hampton could be good collaborators.

The Twitterati have by no means been silent. Alice Hoffman launched an invective against the Boston Globe critic Roberta Silman over her review of The Story Sisters last June. It culminated in Hoffman tweeting Silman's phone number and e-mail address for readers to respond to "snarky critics". Alain de Botton also declared war during the summer by writing on the critic Caleb Cain's blog that "I will hate you until the day I die" over an unfavourable write-up of his book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work in The New York Review of Books. "You have now killed my book in the United States, nothing short of that," he wrote. "So that's two years of work down the drain in one miserable 900-word review." Followers were later graced by a more contrite de Botton, who tweeted: "I was so wrong, so unself-controlled. Now I am so sorry and ashamed of myself."

Perhaps Ayelet Waldman's Twitter update provides the most succinct expression of disgruntlement last summer. Concerning a review of Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace in The New Yorker, she posted: "May Jill Lepore rot in hell. That is all." But while the new medium proves strikingly effective at digital evisceration, one longs for the days of direct confrontation. Indeed, authors striking back at critics - or at other authors turned reviewers - is nothing new. Past responses included guns - as was the case with Richard Ford, whose intense dislike of Alice Hoffman's review of The Sportswriter in 1986 caused him to shoot up her books and send them to her riddled with bullet holes. A gentlemanly slap is also not out of bounds; Stanley Crouch hit the critic Dale Peck twice across the face after he wrote unfavourably about Don't the Moon Look Lonesome in 2004.

And there is always, of course, the classic revenge of annihilation by the pen; the late John Updike and Michael Crichton have both ridiculed reporters and critics they disliked in their works, suggesting that for all the progress of the digital age, the pen still remains mightier than the status update. @Email:mmetallidis@thenational.ae