Reviews and reviewers: the best revenge

Reviews, it should be unnecessary to state, are not generally libellous, even when they are sour, bad-tempered and malign. Sounds uncontentious, no? But in France, a case has been working its way through the courts, attempting to prove just the opposite.

In 2007 a professor at NYU’s School of Law, Joseph Weiler, who edits a website, Global Law Books, posted a review by Professor Thomas Weigend, of the University of Cologne, of a book by Karin Calvo-Goller, a lecturer in Israel, catchily entitled The Trial Proceedings of the International Criminal Court.

Ms Calvo-Goller took exception to the review, which suggested her analytical grasp of the subject was weak. She asked the website to remove the review, which it refused to do, although it offered her space to respond. She declined.

I’ve taken exception to reviews of my books, too, but it has never occurred to me to do what Ms Calvo-Goller did, which was to go venue-shopping for libel. Despite a Dutch publisher, a New York-based website, an Israeli academic and a German reviewer, she sued Professor Weiler for criminal (yup, you got that right) libel in the French courts (the reviewer was not named in the suit).

Professor Weiler has now won. The case has been dismissed, and he has been awared punitive damages. He has posted a fascinating article on his defence here.

But really, as a writer, my question is, who sues for libel over a nasty review? There are plenty of well-respected and time-tested methods for dealing with other people’s poor opinions of your work when they appear in print.

a) Kick newspaper across room; if shoes are damp and they leave dirty footprints on paper, so much the better; if not, decorate reviewer’s byline photgraph with buck teeth and extra-large ears, plus a little five o’clock shadow (for a woman) or cleavage (a man);

b) Over a period of days, remind everyone within earshot that you had intentionally set out to do whatever it is the reviewer says you have done by accident (omitted to deal with major facet of x, y or z; relocated city to wrong continent, etc.);

c) Over a period of weeks, start to spread rumour of said reviewer’s interesting sexual proclivities. Begin, ‘Don’t tell anyone, but…’ (When recipient of innuendo replies, ‘Did you see her review of your book?’ look amazed, and say ‘Oh no, really?’);

d) After a few months, modify: when reviewer’s name is mentioned, simply smile sadly, shake your head and say, ‘Poor thing’. When asked why, look mysteriously regretful;

e) For years, know that you really really really dislike this person, even if you can no longer quite remember why;

f) Finally, meet her at party; have lovely conversation; swap email addresses, pictures of children, annoying habits of the editor you now share, before you realize who it is you are talking to;

g) Move on…

And after your second or third book, recognize that (a) to (e) can all be encompassed in the five minutes you spend kicking the newspaper across the room. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, and that’s all a review is. Just skip to (f). Even if you don’t want to. Smile. Be polite. Revenge is behaving well.

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