Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Negative Review = Libel?

Niall Ferugson is one of the most successful historians in the world. His many books are bestsellers. He has an endowed professorship at Harvard University. He hobnobs with influential conservatives. He's even an international television star.

In other words, he's got nothing to worry about.

So it's disappointing to see him overreact to a harsh review from journalist Pankaj Mishra in the London Review of Books. He wrote to the editors, clearly hinting that he might sue for libel. You can read about it on the Los Angeles Times website, or the Guardian over in the UK. It's an overreaction, and it will only serve to make him look bad—as if runaway success on every front isn't enough for him.

Believe me, I sympathize with recipients of negative reviews, even when I dish them out myself. You work for years on a book (well, most of us do), and then some jerk reads it once and tells everyone what to think about it. But that's what you sign up for when you publish a book. It's easy to forget, once you establish yourself as an author, that you're damned lucky the world wants to hear what you think about anything. Everybody thinks they have a book (or ten) in them, and few of us get them published. You want people to listen to you? Then you have to deal with what people think about what you said. You can't control the discussion of your book, even when it seems mighty unfair to you. That's just how it is. We are all legal targets for critical sniping. I have never liked being criticized, but I'd say I deserve even more that I've gotten.

I should say that I have no stake in the fight. I've never met Ferguson. I reviewed one of his books, High Financier, for the Washington Post, and found it deserved great respect—a very serious book indeed, nicely written, if a bit awkwardly constructed to my taste. I did meet Mishra when we both had fellowships at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, but I never knew him well. He was away much of the time on freelance writing assignments. Whether I agree or disagree with the review doesn't influence my tut-tutting of Ferguson's lawsuit threat.

The irony is that, as I understand his book, the threat of libel rather runs against the very values that Ferguson argues have elevated the West over the rest of the world. Irony indeed.

1 comment:

laurie said...

this has been a concern of some of my reviewers--i hire freelancers, and if they are sued by libel they are pretty much on their own. that has given some of them pause before agreeing to review for me, but so far there have been no incidents like this one.