Can one sue over a bad book review? This is the question being asked by Harvard historian, and popular writer, Niall Ferguson as he ponders launching a lawsuit against Pankaj Mishra, who reviewed his most recent book in the London Review of Books. The disagreement is an ugly affair, which, unfortunately, may just boil down to a political disagreement with Mishra viewing Ferguson`s book, Civilization: The West and the Rest as perpetuating "white people's histories". Even the clarification penned by Mishra was not enough to efface the allegation of libel and defamation. Mishra, however, is no stranger to the bad book review genre as he clashed earlier this year with Patrick French, again on a post-imperialist basis.
Of course, such literary squabbles are not uncommon in the literary world. Paul Theroux and V.S. Naipaul only recently purged their dispute, while William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway never did become chums. But at least they only used profanity to describe one another as opposed to Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal, who famously used fists instead of the pen. Watch this great clip of the two on the Dick Cavett show. Often literary warriors do prefer the pen and slug it out in the media with duelling book reviews as in the case of Salman Rushdie and John Updike.
The problem is, however, when literary spats move into the bete noir and the threatened lawsuit becomes a criminal trial. Earlier this year, Joseph Weiler, a law professor at New York University, was tried in a French court for criminal defamation relating to an unfavourable review of a book on the International Criminal Court written by Karin Calvo-Goller. The Court did not miss the irony of the situation, as it declined jurisdiction on the matter and ordered Calvo-Goller to pay costs for the lawsuit, which was found to be an abuse of process.
The above situations may not help us determine when a book review turns rogue and attracts legal attention but it is a healthy reminder that writers too can be stranger than fiction.