A New York Times review from Janet Maslin is a dream for any novelist, unless, of course, it’s a negative one, in which case it’s totally understandable to end up pressing one’s face “deeper into the couch, trying to get to its springs and asphyxiate.” That was the writer Patrick Somerville after learning that Maslin called his new book, This Bright River, both “desperate” and “soggy” in Monday’s edition of the most influential newspaper around. It was only after emitting a round of “guttural moaning noises” that Somerville realized Maslin’s review was partially predicated on a misreading of the book’s prologue. That’s when the whole thing got very, very twee.
Somerville shares his recent, critic-induced ups and downs in a column for Salon, centering on Maslin’s mistake: “We meet Ben [Hanson], a onetime rich kid and stoner, who sustains some kind of head injury in the novel’s prologue,” she wrote erroneously. “That knock on the head accounts for some of the vague, so-what nature of Ben’s perceptions about himself and others.” Ben isn’t the one who gets hit, and so that section of the review has since been nixed entirely in favor of a correction, but it’s one that only came about after what Somerville calls “the most sadistic moment of belated fact-checking in the history of mankind.”
Despite the author’s own e-mail being readily available on his website, the Times editor opted to reach out to the book’s (not real!) character Ben at an e-mail address Somerville created for his protagonist on a lark. The actual correspondence started like this:
Dear Mr. Hanson,
Given the vagaries of fictional life, I understand that you might not be able to answer this question, which has come up after one of our readers read the review of “This Bright River” that we published. But – in the prologue, are you the person who is hit on the head?
-Ed Marks, Culture Desk
Somerville played along, responding as Ben and alerting the Paper of Record that Maslin had indeed gotten it wrong. From there, the fake person and the newspaper editor continued an in-character exchange that lasted 38 messages. It’s cute, in a nauseatingly literary way.
But along with the correction and a new friend for his fictional character, Somerville won himself a bizarre anecdote with which to demonstrate that he’s a good sport and thus plug his book. As an antidote to Maslin’s lukewarm take, Somerville’s addendum has been e-mailed, tweeted, and shared on Facebook nearly 2,000 times. And we’ll be damned if there’s not a screenplay in there, too.