Wednesday, July 01, 2009


Alice Hoffman is among our most well-known contemporary novelists. She writes beautifully and movingly . . . of relationships, of milestones and of the human condition. She is one of those writers whose wordsmithing is so well done, I read passages out loud to myself--just to enjoy the rhythm and rhyme of her sentences.

Her latest book, her 21st novel for adults, titled The Story Sisters was published on June 2. Boston Globe book critic Roberta Silman reviewed the book on June 28, which is where this story starts.

Silman was complimentary of Hoffman's earlier works. Her review said:
. . . one of my favorite books is her “Illumination Night,’’ which amply displays her gifts of precise prose and the ability to create sympathetic characters.
However, when it came to The Story Sisters, Silman was blunt:
But this new novel lacks the spark of the earlier work. Its vision, characters, and even the prose seem tired. Too much of it is told rather than shown, and the story itself is a strange combination of a coming-of-age novel set on Long Island and a brutal story of the consequences of a childhood trauma . . .
I'm going to stop here and editorialize for a moment.

Writing can be a tough business. For most of us, it is done in lonely rooms, in moments hijacked from the rest of our lives: hours stolen from our families, our leisure time and sometimes even our jobs.

When we finally finish polishing our manuscripts, we run a gauntlet of critiques from our writing partners, agents and finally editors. If the work holds up after that barrage of constructive feedback, we wait endlessly for the book or novella to be released; only to find ourselves facing a new volley of feedback cum criticism from critics and fans alike.

I say all this to indicate that I have some understanding of how Alice Hoffman must have felt upon reading Silman's review. It must have felt like having your son's fifth grade teacher greet you during a parent/teacher meeting with the words: "I taught Jessica two years ago and found her to be an excellent student and a darling child. Bobby, on the other hand, is a bit of a dolt. I can't wait for him to move on to sixth grade."

Imagine the shock, the rage, the desire to respond to such outrageous calumny.

Unfortunately, Alice Hoffman acted on that impulse. She tweeted her outrage on her AliceHof Twitter account. Although the posts are no longer available for viewing, Gawker immortalized them online on Monday morning:
Roberta Silman in the Boston Globe is a moron. How do some people get to review books? And give the plot away.

Writers used to review writers. My second novel was reviewed by Ann Tyler. So who is Roberta Silman?
And Hoffman didn't stop there. In twenty-seven . . . count 'em . . . twenty-seven posts she lambasted Silman, the Boston Globe and the City of Boston, her own hometown.

Just when you thought it couldn't get any worse, she offered up Silman's email address and phone number, suggesting people contact the critic and give her hell.

{Shakes head sadly}

It was like watching a trainwreck. Hoffman tried to rally legions of female supporters to her cause with statements like:
Girls are taught to be gracious and keep their mouths shuts. We don't have to.

And we writers don't have to say nothing when someone tries to destroy us.

That last line brought to mind a character in Hoffman's The Third Angel. Here is how she described him:
Michael Macklin had done some bad things, it was true . . . He put his life on the line in France, and he hadn't even shivered . . . In battle, he'd felt alive. On the run, he felt he had something to run to. He liked danger, he liked the smell of it. He liked the feel of his blood running hot.
The only blessing in this debacle was that Hoffman mistyped Silman's phone number in her exhortation to readers to reach out and touch Silman.

Silman told the L.A. Times' Jacket Copy:
"Aside from your email there have been nine emails to me, all in support of my review and/or my right to review and all apologizing for Alice Hoffman's perplexing behavior . . . I wouldn't change anything about my review. I have written many reviews for The Globe and say what I believe, and, in this case, I praised her earlier work, which was clearly better. I'm sorry Alice could not take pride in the good things I said, and perhaps mull a little on the criticism. That is what I have always tried to do when professional people have criticized my work."
Jacket Copy also printed the following:
Alice Hoffman's statement, which was conveyed by her publicist, Camille McDuffie at Goldberg McDuffie Communications, reads:

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.

Alice Hoffman
NOTE TO SELF: Don't ever, ever respond to a review. No matter how much it hurts, just walk away.

Read Silman's review here.

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