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

Share
Related Topics

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'

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £60,000

£25000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Care Workers Required - The London Borough of Bromley

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This homecare agency is based in Beckenh...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Polish minister Rafal Trazaskowski (second from right)  

Poland is open to dialogue but EU benefits restrictions are illegal and unfair

Rafal Trzaskowski
The report will embarrass the Home Secretary, Theresa May  

Surprise, surprise: tens of thousands of illegal immigrants have 'dropped off' the Home Office’s radar

Nigel Farage
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie