Making a crime of forthright criticism

A libel-court victory against a book reviewer who was ‘spiteful’ will have a chilling effect on literary criticism.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Politics

Sarah Thornton’s Seven Days in the Art World, a sociological peek into the contemporary global art scene, was released to rave reviews in 2008. ‘Entertaining’, ‘lucid’, ‘high-spirited’ are just some of the superlatives that critics used to describe the Canadian-born author’s work. But at least one critic deviated from the near-uniform chorus of approval, describing Thornton as ‘a decorative Canadian’ with ‘a seemingly limitless capacity to write pompous nonsense’.

The acerbic judgement was meted out by Lynn Barber in a review for the Daily Telegraph in November 2008. Fair comment, some might say. Yet Barber also interpreted Thornton’s claim of practicing ‘reflexive ethnography’ as granting interviewees ‘copy approval’ and denied that she, who was listed as one of 250 interviewees for the book, was offered any such thing. Moreover, Barber claimed in her review that she had never even given the interview in the first place.

Thornton begged to differ, but her complaints to the Telegraph were to no avail. Eventually she dragged the paper, and Barber, to court. The judge found that Barber had, indeed, given an interview and that she had had no reason to believe that Thornton had a policy of granting copy approval. Barber’s conduct was deemed ‘reckless’ and ‘malicious’ by the High Court in London.

Thornton was awarded £65,000 in damages for libel and malicious falsehood. The judgement sends a clear message that, in England, libel law suits are mightier than the pen.

Thornton was right to challenge Barber’s factual errors and it seems the Telegraph could have dealt with her complaints in a fairer and swifter manner. But no matter how obstinate that newspaper may have been, there are several other publications and public fora in which Thornton could have voiced her complaints and put forward a counter case.

After all, this is an author who writes for such respected and respectable publications as The Economist, the New Yorker, Art Monthly and the Guardian. This is an author who graces discussion panels at such illustrious seats of learning as Oxford and Cambridge and who brushes shoulders with the literati at conferences and book festivals around the world. Surely Thornton could have pitched a piece or two to her editors in order to stand up for herself and to demolish Barber’s case? She could have written letters and rallied some support from literary companions in order to prove Barber wrong and to embarrass her for having such a poor memory that she could not even recall sitting down for a long interview about the art world.

The long slog through the courts sends a stronger message, of course, but it’s not one that any writer should be proud of broadcasting. Because, in effect, it solidifies a culture of caution that already permeates the publishing world and public debate. The judgement sends a message to editors to think twice before publishing malicious reviews and to tone them down before putting them into print. Rather than doing writers any favours, Thornton has more likely contributed to the watering down of literary criticism – and, as a regular writer about contemporary art, it is her own field she is dampening.

The judgement did not just establish that Barber had made false allegations but also that her review had been ‘spiteful’. The judge stated that, ‘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.’

Now, while false allegations and factual errors must be avoided and kept in check by writers and editors, ill will and spitefulness are perfectly legitimate motivations for penning reviews. A critic who has it in for an author has every right to review said author’s book. After all, vendettas are par for the course in much of literary criticism. And how are we supposed to stand up for ourselves and our views of the world if we’re not allowed to challenge, critique and ridicule those who oppose us?

The judgement implies that someone who is critical of the style or ideas that a person represents cannot be trusted to criticise them in public. So does that mean that someone who is critical of celebrity culture, for instance, ought not to be commissioned to write reviews of celebrities’ biographies? Or that someone who wants to challenge contemporary trends like, say, libel tourism ought not to be allowed to review books in their defence, as it might be construed as ‘spiteful’?

For a person who scrutinises the art world, Thornton seems to be surprisingly sensitive to bitchy jibes. Her court win is a victory, not for truth, but for all of those sensitive souls who can’t take a bit of literary abuse and who don’t have the cojones to stand up for themselves and to prove their critics’ memories or tastes wrong. (Please don’t sue me, Sarah.)

Nathalie Rothschild is an international correspondent for spiked. Visit her personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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