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Costly Snark in Reviews

August 7, 2011

Francis Wheen has a piece in the Financial Times entitled “The Hunting of the Snark,” which comments on the recent UK court decision awarding writer Sarah Thornton £65,000 damages over a particularly nasty review by Lynn Barber.

“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. …

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?”

[Judge] 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”.

What most interested me in this situation, and something seemingly overlooked by Wheen’s subsequent analysis, is that this was not simply one literati critiquing another over the use of Oxford commas. This was an attack on the research principles of an academic. As such, it isn’t merely an acerbic statement on a manuscript; it brings the author’s methodology and merit for tenure into question.

Wheen seems to reminisce about the “good old days” when reviewers were able to rip each other to shreds with an impunity fostered by personal isolation. Examples from Twain, Orwell and others prove this point in regards to literary circles. However, in the academy (especially in biblical studies and related fields in which I move) more decorum is often shown/needed in reviews because personal interactions are almost unavoidable.

One Comment
  1. August 7, 2011 9:09 pm

    Bear in mind that Libel in a British courtroom bears only the most passing resemblance to what would be thought libelous anywhere else. Large libel verdicts are frequently found even when the looser is proven to have spoken truthfully, which has had something of a chilling effect on the ACTUAL British investigative press (no the NOTW “who’s shagging which WAG” crap”


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