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Writers rejoice! You can sue reviewers for damages — and win big!

July 27, 2011

Sarah Thornton

Back in the glory days, when I was the book critic for the Sun-Sentinel, I used to joke with cityside reporters that I was at work on a breaking book review. But now it turns out arts criticism is real reporting after all — you can now face legal action for getting it wrong.

At least in the U.K., where a judge has ordered the Daily Telegraph to pay more than $100,000 in damages to Sarah Thornton, author of the bestselling nonfiction book, Seven Days in the Art World, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Thornton is a well-regarded scholar who covers art for the Economist magazine. She claimed her book, an examination of the contemporary art world, was based on 250 individual interviews.

The Telegraph assigned the review to Lynn Barber, a professional writer and veteran book reviewer and arts critic, and incidentally, the author of the memoir An Education, which was made into the movie that introduced Cary Mulligan to a grateful world.

Barber was also listed among the 250 experts Thornton interviewed. In her witty and scabrous review, Barber claimed she’d had never been interviewed by Thornton, and, what’s more, claimed that Thornton allowed her subjects “copy approval.”

Thornton, however, was able to prove that she had conducted a 40-minute phone interview with Barber during the research for the book, eventually wresting an apology and correction from the Telegraph in 2009.

Thornton, whose professional reputation was at stake, was not so easily satisfied. She sued for “libel and malicious falsehood,“, and yesterday a judge ruled in her favor in the strongest possible terms. It turns out that Seven Days in the Art World includes criticism of Barber’s participation as a judge on an arts panel — giving Barber motive to want to kill the book.

The Telegraph gave her opportunity. Barber knew her claim that Thornton had not interviewed her was false, the court rule, and therefore amounted to an attack on the author’s “honesty.” The false “copy approval” allegation was deemed “libelous.”

The Telegraph is “dismayed” by the ruling and plans an appeal, but I will be very surprised if the newspaper can prevail. This goes beyond ordinary arts criticism, beyond a disputable aesthetic judgment over a work of art or culture, and closer to the realm of ordinary journalism, where factuality can be ascertained and known falsehoods can be harmful.

I don’t expect this ruling to open the door that would allow, say, Monica Ali to sue over my harsh review of the novel In the Kitchen.



5 Comments leave one →
  1. July 27, 2011 3:29 pm

    Does this mean I can sue you for the review you gave me back in the ’80s? I mean, not that I still even REMEMBER it…

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 27, 2011 4:42 pm

      Ha-ha-ha! You mean the one where I said you aimed low and hit a bull’s eye? That was a RAVE, sugar, a rave….Besides, I think there’s a statute of limitation on these things.

      • July 27, 2011 6:57 pm

        I’ve been kicked by Kirkus. I still consider that an honor.

  2. July 27, 2011 5:39 pm

    People call to do them all the time. With my book I did five. The came back all five star reviews. I will do no more. If you bat a thousand, you stay that way. I did not know them and they me. I felt very grateful.
    When it comes to doing them you really need a person who knows the business and writing very well. One that has an idea what it takes. It also has categories that really are different. The writing business an book business are very different and have different motives. You may have a great book that gets rave reviews as you know Chauncey, yet it is the Publishing companies that market. Some books are best sellers yet others great lit, but only sell to just so many. You also have to be aware of who is working for who. Just like above.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 27, 2011 11:00 pm

      Yeaaaahhhh …. I think it’s mostly luck, Mike. Lots of books the publishers get behind don’t do especially well.

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