Toby Young Toby Young

Status Anxiety | 19 July 2008

Incredibly, nobody has yet punched me in the nose over what I have written in a review

I was told at a very early stage in my writing career never to seek revenge on critics. If you get a poor review, you just have to take it on the chin. To write a letter of complaint to the publication in question — or, worse, punch the critic on the nose — is a terrible faux pas. The correct response when asked about a bad notice is to pretend you have not read it.   

But what if the boot is on the other foot? Is it acceptable for critics to write about the efforts that have been made to retaliate against them? Or is that a breach of etiquette, too? Earlier this year, my friend Sebastian Shakespeare was confronted by an angry young man who objected to something that had appeared about him in the Londoner’s Diary, the column Sebastian edits on the Evening Standard. He punched him in the face, then deposited a bucket of manure on his head as he sat in the driver’s seat of his open-topped BMW. With superhuman restraint, Sebastian has chosen not to write about this, believing it to be a private matter between him and the young man.   

I am not so honourable. Last week, after reviewing the memoirs of a literary grandee in the Wall Street Journal, I received a vitriolic email from the man’s son. ‘I imagine some people may find you entertaining, as most jealous people enjoy the frisson of a vicious barb,’ he wrote. ‘Perhaps if you had actually read the vignettes through, or still had the cranial horsepower actually to understand the wit and wisdom behind them, there would be more to you than the sad spectacle of a man who believes being a bitch in a bespoke suit (paid for with his father’s money) is somehow continuing a great critical tradition.’

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