Toby Young: Gifted and disliked


As a rule, it's a mistake for authors to respond to their bad reviews.

As a rule, it's a mistake for authors to respond to their bad reviews. We're supposed blithely to ignore them; to pretend that the negative words haven't reached us up here on Mount Olympus. To reply – whether by writing a letter to the editor or throwing a glass of wine in the critic's face – is considered the height of bad form. It is to commit what the critic Paul Fussell has dubbed "the ABM" – the Author's Big Mistake.

I'm not confident I'm going to pass this test. I've just written a book about my spectacularly unsuccessful attempt to "take" Manhattan and I'm expecting a deluge of bad reviews. This is partly because, as an occasional critic myself, I've been dishing it out for years. But even if I'd spent my entire career dispensing saccharine praise, I expect I'd still get bad notices. I do have a malign talent for attracting animosity. Everyone has a gift in life and mine is the ability to make people dislike me.

I first noticed this in primary school where, needless to say, I was always the last to be picked at games. This wouldn't have been so humiliating, but there were so many boys at my school called Toby that some bright spark came up with the idea of starting a football team called "Toby United" – and I couldn't even get picked to play for them. My only friend was a black boy called Remi, who explained that the reason he'd taken a shine to me was because he knew what it was like to be a "nigger".

At Oxford it's no exaggeration to say I was the most unpopular undergraduate of my generation. Even Darius Guppy, who went on to be imprisoned for fraud, had nothing on me. I once ran for election to the secretary's committee at the Oxford Union and got fewer votes than Kermit the Frog. I coined the term "negative charisma" to describe the effect I had on people: all I needed to do was walk across a crowded room in which I knew no one and no one knew me and already I'd made 10 enemies. Clearly, a career in politics wasn't for me.

I flattered myself that the reason people disliked me so much was because I was so pushy. I refused to play the game whereby you pretend you're not interested in some fabulous job while frantically campaigning for it behind the scenes. I've always been nakedly ambitious. This might not go over very well in stuffy old England, I told myself, but in America it's par for the course. New York was obviously my spiritual home.

My chance to put this to the test came in 1995, when the magazine I'd been editing for the previous four years went belly up. This was The Modern Review, a bitchy periodical I'd founded with Julie Burchill and Cosmo Landesman, and it had caught the eye of Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair. When it folded, he asked me to come and work for him and I thought my ship had come in. At last! Here was a chance to prove myself. I thought the Big Apple would be in the palm of my hand within six months.

Five years later I was back in London, having made a whole new set of enemies on the other side of the Atlantic. Evidently, my lack of appeal was universal.

So what is it about me that puts people's backs up? My father's theory is that I deliberately antagonise people in order to pre-empt rejection. I'm so terrified of being rebuffed that I end up behaving like an arsehole, so when people inevitably reject me I can tell myself that I engineered the whole process. According to him, I'm a bit like a neurotic woman who sabotages all her relationships with the opposite sex because she's scared of being hurt.

Unfortunately, this is too charitable. The sad truth is, I've often done my level best to win people's affection and they end up disliking me as much as everyone else. In New York, I spent five years assiduously courting celebrities but it never seemed to do me any good. No matter how often I told them I loved their work, they always looked at me suspiciously, as though I was laughing on the other side of my face. The only famous person I ever got along with on the Manhattan party circuit was Donald Trump. Perhaps he recognised a kindred spirit. The title of my book is How to Lose Friends and Alienate People. Trust me. I'm an expert.

'How to Lose Friends and Alienate People' is published in November by Little, Brown

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