Tuesday, 15 May 2012

In which Giles Coren overreacts

Criticism, even the useful and constructive kind, is generally not overly pleasant to receive. If you’ve poured your heart and soul into something – or even just an afternoon’s vaguest imitation of concentration as you covertly watch Leveson at the same time – it feels pretty rotten to have someone else come along and pick it apart.

But being on the receiving end of criticism is part of life, and learning how to deal with it is one of those things that marks us out as proper grown-ups rather than petulant children.

In some lines of life and work, other people having opinions – critical and otherwise – are more prevalent than others. One of those lines is writing, in almost all its forms. If you’re not happy for people to pass comment on what you write, don’t put it out into the public domain.

On Saturday, as I sat in the Bread Room with coffee, I ploughed my way eagerly through my copy of The Times. It was bloody marvellous. Janice Turner’s piece on not being defined by the man in one’s life was the best thing I’ve read in a long time, to the extent that I rootled around Twitter to find her, and let her know; and there was also a great piece on the rise in anti-male sexism that gave pause for thought.

One piece, however, that didn’t do anything for me was a column by Giles Coren. Centred, as it was, on his daughter, I thought it came across as self-indulgent and unimaginative. That’s my opinion – I’m entitled to it. I said as much to a friend on Twitter where, as we discussed the merits of the paper, I referred to the article as “simpering”. She clearly felt more strongly, referring to it as “gibbering child-idolising classism,” and later in the day, said as much to the man himself.

His response could not have been viler.

Before anyone points it out to me, I am not discussing the rights and wrongs of her original tweet, or whether namechecking Coren in such a way was provocative or uncalled for. It’s a distraction that doesn’t deal with the issue I’m talking about here, which is that the acceptable response to criticism is never a nasty, slanderous and personal attack.

As someone who scribbles away in this little corner of the internet, I can understand that it’s uncomfortable to have one’s carefully-penned words ridiculed by the people who read them – especially on topics that are close to the heart.

But that’s life. It’s full of things we don’t like, and leafy, green vegetables we’d rather not eat. As I’ve already said, dealing with these in an adult and sensible manner is what separates us from the two-year olds hurling their possessions out of the metaphorical pram, and themselves onto the floor in a kicking, screaming tantrum. Criticism happens. If it’s fair, take the point on board. If it’s not warranted, ignore it. If it happens on Twitter and it really gets to you, block the offender, for Pete’s sake. But don’t go batshit crazy on them.

Clearly, Alice’s tweet touched a raw nerve in Coren. Maybe underneath the posturing exterior, he knows that writes too much about his daughter, and to have it pointed out in black and white that he now bores his readers was just too much to take. Or maybe he’s just a bit spoilt and used to getting his own way.

Coren’s rebuke in this case wasn’t measured; nor was it proportionate; nor, in its vehemency, justified. It was a hateful and misogynistic overreaction to an opinion shared, I feel I’m right in saying, by more than one Times reader, and if Giles so hates the thought of people holding his writing in such poor esteem and daring, by God, to say so, then maybe his chosen career isn’t for him?


Please Don't Eat With Your Mouth Open said...

Completely missed that exchange. And belatedly absolutely disgusted by it. Surely the point (and benefit) of being on Twitter as a journalist is to garner a response from people - positive or negative - and crowd source opinion.

You don't become a writer and put your work in the public domain unless you want feedback. So to respond in that way to one of your readers is unprofessional - it marks him as someone who hasn't just missed the point of journalism (inspiring conversation, talking about things that matter), but Twitter (getting responses on it, discussing what's happening in the world) too.

Brennig said...

Actually 'one step up from a mumsnet blog post'? I like that. It shows articulate thinking. Whilst Coren demonstrates that sometimes he just can't be bothered to think at all.

Kat said...

Completely agree with the first bit of what Jo says. Once your writing is out there, it's out there for people to discuss at will.

However I also think that saying something negative on Twitter - about anyone - and then adding in their username so they can't help but see it, is an invitation to a punch-up. (Particularly with Coren, who in Media Monkey articles passim has more than shown himself to be on the scotch bonnet side of hot tempered.) but also a bit uncool.

If someone wrote "God, this article I'm currently reading is so totally ridiculous and lame @katbrown82" I would feel like someone had climbed into my kitchen and spat in my breakfast. Have an opinion, use the name, but use some finesse and don't rope in the username.

Katie Khan / Awkward Situations For Girls said...

Agree with Kat on this one entirely.

unpackingbooksfromboxes said...

WOW. What an absolutely horrendous thing to say. He should be sacked. I know Australian columnists have been sacked for lesser tweets. Your friend should demand it, frankly.

Blonde said...

PDEWYMO: Completely. A really, really poor reflection on him.

Brennig: I think that's what disappoints me about his writing these days. It seems to lack any real thought or originality.

Kat / Katie: As I say, my point is about response to criticism in general. And even if Alice's original tweet as, you say, a bit uncool, it didn't justify that level of vitriol in the response. Two wrongs, etc.

Unpacking: He's known for having a temper; I very much doubt anything will happen bar yet another slip in his reputation.

em said...

Who the hell are the people RT and favouriting that post? Do people do that sort of thing?

Regardless of whether she should have named him or not - I am shocked at how offensive his response is, on the surface there are way worse things to write, but this could just hit you to the core, if in fact the barren bit was true!

Redbookish said...

Top post as usual, Blonde.

I agree with Kat that using Mr Coren's Twitter handle was quite a direct thing to do. But also that his response was in a different genre of commentary altogether. When I teach writing (not the creative kind, but the principles are often the same) I teach the old dictum "Kill all your babies." Possibly Mr Coren needs to remember that one ... altho' not literally, obviously.

But his response! Clearly misogynist, and very defensive. There's a history to this kind of exchange, which goes back to that moment of all decline when women first started to publish (oh, peg it on Jane Austen).

I find it interesting that there's a very long history (very loooooong, I've written a book about it) of [usually male] literary critics diminishing women's writing because it's too personal, or domestic, or autobiographical. It's not art, it's just 'natural' female prattling. Henry James on Jane Austen is a classic ('The Lesson of Balzac' breathtaking condescension and belittlement); most contemporary critics on 'Currer Bell' also. And think of recent pronouncements from critics about women's writing now.

So I find it utterly, deeply, darkly ironic (and only partly a kind of schadenfreude) when we find a dominant male critic reacting so defensively to exactly the same criticism. Because -- feminazi comment coming up -- of course, anything an alpha male writer writes *must* be serious, and not like Mumsnet (which I find one of the most moving and hilarious bits of the internetz, actually).

Whew, sorry for the rant. It's one of my specialist subjects ...

Alicia (foodycat) said...

There are several women I respect (Victoria Coren, Esther Walker, Sue Perkins) who hold Giles Coren in high regard, so I have to think he is a nicer man than he comes across as!

Blonde said...

Red: Couldn't agree more. I find it so tiresome that novels by women are so often sneeringly referred to as "thinly-veiled autobiography", when men write from life just as often but aren't dismissed in the same way. It's interesting that there's a long history of it - if only we could move past it. Le sigh.

Alicia: I hope so - he just doesn't do much to back up the theory.

Anonymous said...

Well I usually enjoy reading this particular Personal broadcast stream, there are times that as a non-native Londoner its the closest to middle English mentality I can find, But unfortunately this post dismays me beyond a level I though feasible.

The principle that Ms. Blond feels comfortable defending a critique is not surprising in the slightest but that defence insures the interesting debate is obscured. The fundamental argument in Ms. Blonds post is not actually about Mr Coren’s overblown reaction but rather about her own right to criticise and broadcast her opinion.

Ms. Blond may state in her post that she is not commenting on Ms. Vincent’s actions as they are a “distraction” but one can not help but reach the conclusion that a normally well-informed and expressive Bloger like Ms. Blond has chosen not to comment on Ms. Vincent’s behaviour because the underlying issue is to complex, after all the question is one not about offensive behaviour but rather of qualified criticism.

Mr Coren is a well respected, well educated times journalist who has taken the time over a long and distinguished career to refine and hone his skills although no matter what Mr. Coren’s credentials are he like all of us will fall short of the bar on occasion, but at least he is above the bar most of the time.

Where as Ms Vincent is an editor of a website that is considered within media circles to be dead in the water, fact rather than the opinion shows : its readership has plummeted, it has no tangible editorial line (especially in its Blogs section) and what is more its loosing money hand over fist.

Yes every one has the right to their opinion but it used to be that people didn’t broadcast their opinions on subjects they were uneducated in.

Ms Vincent should have remembered before broadcasting her opinion that she has never worked on a national newspaper never been paid to be a journalist other than on a free local news paper and got her degree from Newcastle. The idea she feels she has the right to denigrate another persons work in a field she has no formal or for that matter informal training in is fundamentally puerile.

Yes Mr Coren’s reaction was overblown but wouldn’t yours be if one of your interns told you ‘you where unfit to do your job’. I hate to say it Ms. Blond but have your read the huffington post recently?


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