The Washington Post

British author awarded more than $100,000 in libel case prompted by ‘spiteful’ review

We all know about the sniping that ensues between American authors and their critics but the war of words that has erupted in Britain’s literary world takes the art to a entirely new level — and with a hefty price tag.

The High Court in London has awarded 65,000 pounds ($106,535) to Sarah Thornton, author of “Seven Days in the Art World,” in libel case that pitted author against reviewer. The court awarded the damages for a critique that it deemed “spiteful.”

The British press is having a field day over the announcement, which came July 27. “These are bleak times for authors,” writes the Financial Times, “so we may be tempted to rejoice at the news. . . . The windfall is, I think it safe to assume, rather more than Dr. Thornton was paid for writing ‘Seven Days in the Art World’ in the first place.”

Lynn Barber wrote the scathing review of Thornton’s book, which takes readers on a tour of the modern art world, for The Daily Telegraph. She was snide, calling Thornton “a decorative Canadian” who writes “pompous nonsense.” But that wasn’t libelous. Barber ran afoul of British law when she took an ill-informed swipe at Thornton’s research. Noting that Thornton claimed to have interviewed more than 250 people for her book, Barber was aghast to find her own name on the list. Barber insisted she was never interviewed by Thorton. “I gave her an interview?” Barber wrote. “Surely I would have noticed?”

Oops. Turns out Barber had been interviewed by the author. “There were only two possibilities,” the FT writes, “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.”

But the judge was unimpressed.

The case prompted the Guardian to ask in a theatre blog, “How rude should theatre critics be?” Blogger Michael Billington says: “Since Thornton was awarded damages, some people seem to think criticism has had its wings clipped. Actually, I’d have thought not. The judge was careful to say in his summing-up that ‘a reviewer is entitled to be spiteful as long as she is honest’.”

Writing in the Independent, Suzi Feay notes,: “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.”

She points out that British reviewing has always had its testy side. She reminds readers of the drubbing John Keats took in 1818 at the hands of John Gibson Lockhart. “So comprehensive was the attack,” she writes, “that it was widely thought to have hastened Keats’ demise.”

Follow me on Twitter (on nonfiction, the publishing industry and e-reading) @SteveLevingston

Steven Levingston is the nonfiction editor of The Washington Post. He is author of “Little Demon in the City of Light: A True Story of Murder and Mesmerism in Belle Époque Paris” (Doubleday, 2014) and “The Kennedy Baby: The Loss that Transformed JFK” (Washington Post eBook, 2013).


Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Show Comments
Most Read


Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters