The Hunting of the Snark
A high court awards damages to an author who received a "malicious" review.
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."
Francis Wheen is a British journalist, writer, and broadcaster.
Photograph of Sarah Thornton by Idris Khan.