I was not long ago introduced before giving a talk by a woman who, to authenticate my importance, said that she had Googled my name and found more than 12 million results. She didn’t, thank goodness, go on to say what some of these results were. If she had, she might have mentioned that a few years ago I was, in the blog of a minor academic, “Blowhard of the Month.” More recently I have been a “wuss,” an “old pouf,” and a “homophobe.” (An old pouf and a homophobe? On the Internet, the law of contradictions, like many other laws, has long ago been abrogated.) Had she checked more closely under Amazon.com she would have discovered that some of the books I’ve written have been deemed “mediocre,” “deeply biased,” and (a favorite) “a waste of paper.”
“To write a book,” said Stendhal, “is to risk being shot at in public.” I used to compare having a book out in the world to walking down a deserted street, when suddenly a window opens and from behind a curtain someone yells, “Fool.” Twenty or so steps farther a second window opens and out of it another person shouts, “Fraud.” Not too much farther on, yet another window opens, and someone screams, “Hey, Emperor. Forget your trousers?”
This was in olden days, B.I., or Before the Internet. With the advent of the Internet, the feeling of having a new book in the world is more like driving a buckboard and sighting, on the rim of the hill in the near distance, an endless lineup of Apaches, armed not with bows and arrows but computers and smartphones. On the Internet anyone can say anything without need of argument or authentication. A reader of one of my books gave it the lowest possible rating on Amazon.com even though he allowed he had never read it, but he agreed with another reviewer who thought the book “disappointing and annoying.” Better this, though, than to be called, as I recently have, a “hack” and a “bigot.”
“The Internet,” Molly Haskell wrote, “is democracy’s revenge on democracy.” I take Ms. Haskell to have meant that there are places where democracy has no place, and in those places where it puts forth its snouty nose, disarray is likely to follow. Fifty million Frenchmen, to reverse an old cliché, are frequently wrong. Does this sound elitist? If so, that is only because it adamantly is. Many are the things on which one opinion is not as good as another, and culture is among them.
The Internet gives writers too much information about reactions to their own work. Over the past 40 years, I must have been reviewed perhaps 2,000 times. I have been much more praised—sometimes lavishly, unconvincingly so—than attacked. Some of the attacks are perfectly understandable, due as they are to fundamental disagreements about literature, politics, the way people ought to live. In literary criticism, injustice isn’t all that hard to take. As H. L. Mencken noted, only true justice stings.
I have even forgotten the names of some of the professional reviewers who have attacked my books. This suggests that I do not suffer from Irish Alzheimer’s, a condition, a friend named Pat Hickey tells me, in which one forgets everything but one’s grudges. But the off-the-cuff remark from someone without any intellectual pretensions can hurt more. Because of this, when in my local library I never look at copies of my books, lest I pick one up and find something insulting written in the margins. A used-book seller once told me that the most amusing bit of marginalia he ever encountered in a book in his shop read, “C’mon, Ortega!!!”
The problem in Googling oneself—“Googling oneself,” the act sounds vaguely obscene—is that a writer does so in the hope of finding himself extravagantly praised from unexpected quarters. Or he hopes to find that his slowly dying book, ranked 682,567th on Amazon.com on Tuesday, has leaped forward and is ranked 9th on Wednesday because adopted by the entire public school system of Calcutta.
Not everything a writer finds about himself on Google is a kick in the pants, a stick in the eye. On occasion a hitherto unknown blogger turns up showing not only appreciation but genuine understanding of what he is trying to do. Or he might find others rising to his defense after he’s been unjustly slammed.
Yet for writers, who are by nature fantasts, Google functions as a reality instructor. In its devastating randomness it reminds them of what the world thinks of them. “Every time I think I am famous,” the composer Virgil Thomson once said, “I have only to go out into the world.” For writers, this might be altered to read, “Every time I think I am admired, I just Google myself.”