These are bleak times for authors. Most of us—by which I mean those not in the exalted realm inhabited by J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown—find it ever harder to persuade publishers to give us an advance that will cover a few months’ electricity bills, let alone a sum to keep us supplied with booze and bacon sandwiches for the next couple of years while we write our masterpieces. So we may be tempted to rejoice at the news that the High Court in London has awarded Sarah Thornton £65,000 in damages to compensate her for a single slashing review of her book about modern British artists. The windfall is, I think it safe to assume, rather more than Dr. Thornton was paid for writing Seven Days in the Art World in the first place.
Precisely because authors are penurious, however, most of us supplement our income by reviewing. From that side of the barricades, Mr. Justice Tugendhat’s verdict looks rather less alluring. Reporting that Thornton had won £65,000 ($105,794) because of a “spiteful” critique by Lynn Barber in the Daily Telegraph, some newspapers implied hatchet jobs were no longer legally permissible. After 200 years of vigorous literary knockabout, from the Edinburgh Review to Private Eye, it seemed that ceaseless simpering praise would now be the obligatory norm.
“Sarah Thornton,” Barber wrote in the offending article, “is a decorative Canadian with a BA in art history and a PhD in sociology and a seemingly limitless capacity to write pompous nonsense.” So far so good: This is what libel lawyers call “mere vulgar abuse,” which is a fine old literary tradition. (Think of Mark Twain on James Fenimore Cooper: “There have been daring people in the world who claimed that Cooper could write English, but they are all dead now.” Or, come to that, William Faulkner on Mark Twain: “a hack writer who would not have been considered fourth-rate in Europe.”)
Then Barber made her costly mistake: “Thornton claims her book is based on hour-long interviews with more than 250 people. I would have taken this on trust, except that my eye flicked down the list of her 250 interviewees and practically fell out of its socket when it hit the name Lynn Barber. I gave her an interview? Surely I would have noticed?”
Tugendhat found that in fact Thornton had interviewed Barber for her book. There were only two possibilities: either Barber was lying in her review, or she was forgetful. Barber pleaded the latter, pointing out that she had sometimes written about her terrible memory. This had the ring of truth: As a friend and former colleague, I can confirm that Barber is what you might kindly call “scatty.” But the judge ruled that it made no difference. Even if she didn’t know that her remark about the interview was wrong, she was at the very least reckless, “that is, indifferent as to whether it was true or false.”
Most of the damages—£50,000 of the £65,000—were awarded for this reason: that Barber’s review included a damaging and untrue allegation. But Tugendhat added another £15,000 to punish her for being malicious. As he explained: “A reviewer is entitled to be spiteful, so long as she is honest, but if she is spiteful, the court may more readily conclude that misstatements of fact are not honest, since spite or ill will is a motive for dishonesty.”
So perhaps the judgment isn’t quite as chilling for Grub Street critics as the media coverage suggested. You can be as rude as you like, so long as you avoid provable untruths. “The case turned on errors of fact,” says Sam Leith, the former Telegraph books editor who commissioned Barber’s review. “It wouldn’t arise in fiction, and even in non-fiction it’s a slightly special case. It certainly wouldn’t give me pause before writing an unkind review.”
Nevertheless, I suspect that some editors will think twice in future before publishing anything that might sound malicious to the sensitive ears of a High Court judge. It’s not as if there was a history of animosity between Barber and the author; her spite, if we must use that word, was provoked entirely by the canting academic jargon of the work she had to review. Sarah Thornton presented her account of the art world as a piece of “ethnographic research,” part of “a genre of writing with roots in anthropology that aims to generate holistic descriptions of social and cultural worlds.” Is it any wonder that Barber threw a critical tantrum—and, in her fury, quite forgot about the interview that would eventually prove so lucrative for Thornton?
You may have guessed by now that I am instinctively on the side of the wretched critic. As an author, I know how wounding reviews can be; but if you produce a book for the public’s appraisal, you shouldn’t then go blubbing to your lawyers when someone tears it to shreds.
So how should you react? When the 19th-century critic Francis Jeffrey denounced Tom Moore’s Epistles, Odes and Other Poems as “a public nuisance” that had been written “for the purpose of insinuating pollution into the minds of unknown and unsuspecting readers,” Moore challenged him to a duel. (The police intervened, and, Moore recorded, “the affair ended amicably. We have since breakfasted together very lovingly.”) But a resort to violence is an admission of defeat. As Gore Vidal commented from a supine position after being felled by a punch from Norman Mailer at a dinner party, “Words fail Norman Mailer, yet again.”
Writers ought to fight with their own weapon—language. Thirty years ago I rubbished Clive James’ epic (and, as I thought, shamelessly genuflecting) poem about the Prince of Wales, “Charles Charming’s Challenges on the Pathway to the Throne.” James never complained. But a few years later he published a poem that began: “The book of my enemy has been remaindered/ And I am pleased.” And I thought: touché!
Disarming charm can be even more effective. In 1985, a book of mine on the history of television was trashed by a young pipsqueak in the Sunday Times who feigned surprise that I hadn’t cited an obscure Ph.D. thesis on TV coverage of the Tet offensive during the Vietnam War. A few weeks later, Claire Tomalin, literary editor of the Sunday Times, introduced me to this smart alec in a Greek restaurant. He cowered, apparently fearing a glass of retsina in the face, so I decided to confound his expectations. “Thank you so much for your review,” I said, “and for drawing my attention to a PhD thesis of which I was unaccountably ignorant.” He whimpered an apology. Since then, like Moore and Jeffrey, we have become the fondest of friends.
Which means, of course, that we can never trash each other’s books again. “You ask,” George Orwell wrote to Stephen Spender, “how it is that I attacked you not having met you, & on the other hand changed my mind after meeting you.” The question answered itself: “When you meet anyone in the flesh you realise immediately that he is a human being & not a sort of caricature embodying certain ideas. It is partly for this reason that I do not mix much in literary circles, because I know from experience that once I have met and spoken to anyone I shall never again be able to show any intellectual brutality towards him, even when I feel that I ought to …”
Willful isolation was probably easier in Orwell’s day. Now, even a first-time novelist living in a bedsit in Droitwich will, once she starts to attract attention, find herself invited to attend publishing parties, or become a book-prize judge, or speak at literary festivals in Hay-on-Wye, Dubai, and Melbourne. If you join this travelling circus, how can you still criticize your colleagues without inhibition? Sam Leith recalls filing a vicious review of a David Lodge novel for The Spectator one morning and then being introduced to Lodge at a party that evening. “He was very pleasant,” Leith sighs. “I crawled away feeling I’d stabbed this nice old gent in the back.” Literary etiquette demands that you don’t review books by friends, but as Leith points out “you’re not meant to review enemies either”. The only solution is never to meet any authors at all.
It’s no coincidence that one of the few remaining practitioners of the hatchet job in mainstream media, the New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani, is almost as reclusive as J.D. Salinger. Norman Mailer described her as “a one-woman kamikaze”; Nicholson Baker said that having his novel A Box of Matches panned by Kakutani was “like having my liver taken out without anaesthesia.” Tom Wolfe, John Updike, Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, Jonathan Franzen—all have been Kakutanied. Yet none of them would even recognize her in the street. All we know is that she’s 56 and single—and may or may not once have dated Woody Allen.
Does she represent an endangered species? In the pre-digital era almost our only source of advice on whether new books were good or bad—aside from word-of-mouth—was the review pages of upmarket newspapers and magazines. Now we’re more likely to be guided by Oprah Winfrey or the Richard and Judy book club or by that enticing little feature on Amazon informing us that customers who buy Julian Barnes also like, say, Ronald Firbank. Useful though it can be, this tends to confirm our existing tastes rather than tempting us to risk something different. Nor, alas, does Amazon ever advise us that customers who dislike Martin Amis will really loathe Will Self.
“Perhaps the literary world is becoming a bit more cosy and book-groupy, affirmative and celebratory in tone,” Sam Leith says. “Even Booker judges no longer have giant bust-ups: they all go round to tea at one another’s houses.”
All most agreeable. But what about the critic’s other responsibility—”the thankless task of drowning other people’s kittens,” as Cyril Connolly put it? D.J. Taylor, who reviews about 50 books a year, believes that “the English novel is consistently let down by a deferential reviewing establishment with an engrained reluctance to condemn inferior work.” He describes reviewing as “a racket, a pleasant and sweetly conducted racket, but a racket all the same, in which everybody more or less knows everybody else and gamely conspires in mutual backslapping.” If Taylor himself is an exception to the rule, it may be because he lives in Norfolk, at a safe remove from the beguiling literary salons of Soho and Bloomsbury.
But then there have always been compromising interests and influences at work. “If a writer has friends connected with the press, it is the plain duty of those friends to do their utmost to help him,” George Gissing wrote in New Grub Street (1891). “What matter if they exaggerate, or even lie?” In Orwell’s essay “Confessions of a Book Reviewer,” he imagines a jobbing critic skipping through one volume after another while crying, “God, what tripe!” Then the hack remembers his duty. “All the stale old phrases—’a book that no one should miss,’ ‘something memorable on every page,’ ‘of special value are the chapters dealing with, etc etc’—jump into their places like iron filings obeying the magnet.”
They still do. Leafing through the book section of a Sunday newspaper last weekend I started underlining the stale old phrases—”deftly chronicled,” “extraordinarily fascinating,” “effortlessly readable,” “finely crafted,” “gravely compelling.” All sincerely meant, no doubt; but as I chewed on this bland pap, God, how I longed for a flagon of vinegar!
This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.