Why Family Members Probably Ought to Refrain from Publicly Defending Relatives

November 20 Update: Interesting to see in today’s Deals Report from PublishersMarketplace.com that Sidney Blumenthal is going to publish a new multi-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln with Simon & Schuster. Judging by the report, it looks as if the biographical trilogy is well underway, with the first book due to come out in 2015. Having published two books with Blumenthal in 2008, and found him a very capable author, I’m glad to see he’ll soon be publishing again.

Former assistant and senior adviser to President Bill Clinton and political journalist for publications including the Washington Post, the New Republic, Vanity Fair, and the New Yorker Sidney Blumenthal’s A SELF-MADE MAN, A HOUSE DIVIDED, and JUDGMENTS OF THE LORD, a three-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln exploring new sources coupled with original interpretations that promise to give readers new insights into Lincoln, his genius, and his world, to Alice Mayhew at Simon & Schuster, for publication beginning in 2015, by Robert Barnett at Williams & Connolly.



Yesterday, a Buzzfeed story by Rosie Gray about writer and pundit Sidney Blumenthal* coming to the defense of his author son Max, whose current book Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel had received a critical review in The Nation from Eric Alterman, left me considering the frequency with which family members step in to attack detractors when they see a spouse, child, or sibling being criticized. This week alone, Doug Ford has been agitating on behalf of his brother, Toronto mayor, Rob Ford, demanding that Police Chief Bill Blair resign his office (merely for stating he was “disappointed” upon viewing tape of the mayor smoking from a crack pipe). A day earlier, it was Mackenzie Bezos, wife of Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, and a published novelist, giving a poor review to Brad Stone’s new book, The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, actually posting her knock on the book’s Amazon page. Talk about meta!

I have to question the judgment and wisdom of these three. While the impulse to defend a loved one is understandable, indulging in it is far from the wisest step they could take on behalf of their kin. Even if the comments are well-reasoned and not ad hominem–a contrast seen between the comparatively measured words of Ms. Bezos and the blustery rhetoric of Doug Ford–why do these defenders of the clan fail to see that their comments will be believed by many people to be little more than self-interested attacks on their relatives’ critics? It almost doesn’t matter how they put it–with many people they simply begin as an impeached source. Blumenthal’s critiques of Alterman’s review haven’t been made public, as Gray’s story reports he sent his pushback in emails only to a selected list of contacts, not on the Web or out loud in sullen tones to a national broadcaster.** But whether the words are cool or overheated, not only are these familial defenses often not believed, they also make the relative appear weak and unwilling or unable to fight his/her own battles. What’s more, in hitting the “publish” button on her “review” did Ms. Bezos not consider that she’d be lending Stone and his publisher a welcome jolt of publicity and attention in prominent media around the world? Maybe to Ms. Bezos an attempt to correct the record is more important, but I say she committed a strategic mistake.

After reading yesterday’s story about Blumenthal and Alterman, this morning I read a post on the Guardian book blog, “Is MacKenzie Bezos’s one-star Amazon review part of a trend?“, with even more examples of ill-considered missions on behalf of spouses, including the 2011 example of Ayelet Waldman attacking critics of her husband Michael Chabon’s first childrens book. She denounced “jackasses” and “fucking Amazon reviewers giving Awesome Man 1 star… IT WAS WRITTEN FOR LITTLE KIDS”. Hmm, talk about intemperate.

One of the reasons I’m surprised at the inability of these people to not enter the fray is that in connection with my own wife and teenage son, operating in social media, we typically check with one another before “liking” something by the other, or “tagging” them. We recognize that in one’s social and professional life one doesn’t always want to be shadowed by family members. This prompts the question whether Max Blumenthal, Rob Ford, and Jeff Bezos each gave their blessing to the attacks by their father, brother, and wife, respectively.  For my part, if it were me I would say to my loved one, “Please, keep out of it.”
*Disclosure-In 2008 I published two books with Sidney Blumenthal and around that time had dinner with him and his son, Max, journalist Joe Conason, and a handful of other people. I found Max to have a noticeably angry disposition.
** Consider though that this may make a writer more apt to use invective, if he thinks his venting will never be published.

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  1. […] winning memoir of working at Amazon from 1996-2001, which he published with The New Press in 2004. Having earlier this year read and written about Brad Stone’s THE EVERYTHING STORE: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, which briefly […]

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