Suzi Feay: No critic sets out to 'kill' a book

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Literary editors can only read about the Telegraph books pages' recent legal drubbing at the hands of disgruntled author Sarah Thornton with a shiver of horror. Thornton's book Seven Days in the Art World received a merciless review from literary grande dame Lynn Barber, and Thornton promptly sued. The judgement compensated Thornton for the perceived damage to her professional standing as an academic to the tune of £65,000.

Is this episode going to lead to blander reviews in future? On inspection, the case is so specific that it's hard to imagine its conditions being replicated. Barber had been a Turner Prize judge (a somewhat unhappy one) and was originally approached by the author as an interviewee for the book. Whether or not Barber in fact granted that interview was one of the points in question. The other was a somewhat technical point about whether Thornton had offered her subjects "copy approval" – which the court found she hadn't.

As a commissioner of reviews, you're aware that often a person with specialist, insider knowledge will also precisely be a person with an axe to grind. Barber's stint as a Turner Prize judge seemingly made her a good choice to review an "ethnographic" study of the art world, but it also implicated her in the topic. Thornton claimed in a communication to her publicist that the fact that Barber was criticised in the book by two of Thornton's interviewees constituted a reason why she "might want to kill the book".

Now I'd be very surprised if Barber had a hide a millimetre less thick than a rhino's, and was worried for one moment about any negative comments. "Kill the book" not only seems an exaggerated response to an admittedly tough review, but a misunderstanding as to what book reviewing is all about.

I don't think I've ever met a reviewer who really wanted to kill a book – they just wanted to get their opinion out there. In this forensic washing of grubby linen, no one comes out of things particularly well. Barber's off-hand diary entries were aired, as were Thornton's obsequious email exchanges with Barber, and those between reviewer and commissioning editor, with their familiar, slightly bitchy tone. How well I recall the sort of thing: "He's a bit tricky, better leave that out. It is true, though."

There has always been a robust tradition of book reviewing in this country; reviewers used to be anonymous or pseudonymous partly to avoid being challenged to a duel. Every so often a particularly savage review will be met with the claim, "Is this the worst book review ever?" Tibor Fischer's evisceration of Martin Amis' Yellow Dog is still remembered fondly in this context, though not by Mr Amis. Though hardly anything published today ranks in sheer spite with the review that Regency critic John Gibson Lockhart, writing as "Z", aimed at John Keats in 1818. So comprehensive was the attack that it was widely thought to have hastened Keats' demise.

Having discovered that Keats was of lowly background and had studied medicine, Lockhart opined: "It is a better and a wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet; so back to the shop, Mr John, back to the "plasters, pills and ointment boxes" etc. But, for Heaven's sake, young Sangrado, be a little more sparing of extenuatives and soporifics in your practice than you have been in your poetry." Ouch! Next to that, Barber's gibe that "Sarah Thornton is a decorative Canadian" seems positively benign.

The imputation of malice is what strikes against our reviewing culture. Critical malice is by and large a cheerful thing, incorporating a desire that the irritant will go on annoying us, because it's so enjoyable railing against it. We must hope that this ruling doesn't chip away at the critic's right to express strong disapprobation.

Suzi Feay is a former literary editor of 'The Independent on Sunday'

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