Libel and Academic Book Reviews

by Henry Farrell on February 25, 2010

Via a CT reader, this “rather horrifying attempt to hold an academic journal criminally responsible”: (PDF) for publishing a negative book review and then refusing to suppress it. As Joseph Weiler, the editor of the _European Journal of International Law_ describes the culmination of his saga:

… on 26 September 2008 I received a Subpoena to appear before a French Examining Judge in connection with an investigation of alleged criminal libel based on a complaint made by Dr Calvo-Goller essentially replicating the complaints in her first letter to me. … in libel cases, all investigations of the merits of the case are exclusively reserved for the Criminal Court itself and, therefore, as a direct consequence of the complaint being filed, it was necessary that I be referred to the Court for trial. The date for the trial has now been set for 25 June 2010.

The review (in the _European Journal of International Law_ ) is “decidedly pungent”:, but (without commenting on the legal aspects,which I know nothing about) it seems to my eyes to be well within the usual norms of academic book reviewing (where a general tendency towards back-slapping congeniality is leavened by occasional fits of vigorous criticism). Weiler asks that academics who are upset at Dr. Calvo-Goller’s novel approach to managing the fallout from negative book-reviews send letters of “indignation/support” by email attachment (preferably with letterhead and affiliation) to, especially if they are editors or book review editors for other journals. He also asks that people send scanned or digital copies of other caustic book reviews to this address, so as to demonstrate that Dr. Calvo-Goller’s unhappy experience at the hands of a critic is nothing unusual. As an occasional author of “uncomplimentary book reviews”: myself, I encourage people both (a) to send such reviews in and (b) to link them in comments, especially if they are well written. I do wonder whether Dr. Calvo-Goller appreciated the notoriety that she would accrue through her actions; The _Chronicle_ already “has a piece”: on this, _Inside Higher Ed_ won’t be far behind, and I wouldn’t at all be surprised at all if this story breaks out into the mainstream press.



Alex 02.25.10 at 10:52 pm

And they say the English libel law is bad!


Jonathan Dursi 02.25.10 at 10:57 pm

Really? That review is what counts as actionable in legal scholar circles? Apparently we’re made of sterner stuff in the physical sciences. I’ve had papers returned with referee comments that make that look like something you’d write on a child’s birthday card.


Cheryl Morgan 02.25.10 at 11:10 pm

I’m just in the process of nudging a few folks who write for the Guardian book blog.


steven 02.26.10 at 12:19 am

That’s a rather mild critical review, although very annoying in its complaint that the author did not write a completely different kind of book. I have often been far more hostile in print.


Kieran Healy 02.26.10 at 12:34 am

Just to echo everyone else — That’s it? That’s an actionable review?

For purposes of contrast (and cheap entertainment), here is the opening paragraph of Art Stinchcombe’s review of Immanuel Wallerstein’s The World System II: Mercantilism and the Consolidation of the European World Economy, 1600-1750:

I do not think this book is very good. But it does not explain what it is trying to do, and so does not generate standards internally according to which I can judge it to have fallen short. I will therefore consider it successively as a sociological monograph urging a theoretical argument, as a history of the 17th and early 18th century, and as a source book and guide to the literature on economic history. I will argue that it is not very good by the standards generated by any of these three visions of what the book is, though of the three it comes closes to the last; it is a pretty good annotated bibliography in 17th century economic history.

There are many other entertaining examples in this genre.


Greg Hays 02.26.10 at 1:15 am

The opening of F.R.D. Goodyear’s review of Daniel Knecht’s edition of the pseudo-Virgilian poem known as the Ciris. (Bonus points for insulting three other scholars in addition to the ostensible victim.)

Dr. Knecht is a painstaking and conscientious scholar, and he has lavished much effort on the production of this edition. But he would have been wiser if he had not attempted a task so far beyond his powers. … In my edition (Oxford, 1966) I tried, as far as the desperately unreliable tradition of the poem allowed, to restore it to some semblance of Latinity and sense, and also to banish from the apparatus a multitude of misguided conjectures. Now, after only four years, here is Knecht lovingly reinstating the solecisms of medieval scribes and carting back the garbage of modern scholarship.

The poems which make up the Appendix Vergiliana, having been so woefully mangled in transmission, possess an irresistible attraction for those who are insensible alike to grammar and syntax and sense: here then R. Giomini, L. Herrmann, and A. Salvatore have found a congenial field for the deployment of their talents. The manifold incompetence of Knecht’s editing and his frequent appeals to Salvatore’s authority suggest that he aspires to be numbered with this goodly company. If so, it is not for me to gainsay him …


Maurice Meilleur 02.26.10 at 1:40 am

Someone should send over a copy of Scott McLemee’s review of Cornel West’s last book in IHE. Such sublime and funky criticism cannot be kept for US audiences alone!


Fr. 02.26.10 at 2:07 am

I know of French political scientists who went to court for even more trivial things.


Fr. 02.26.10 at 2:09 am

Sorry, link here, with the double inconvenient of being written in French and being gated.


Henry 02.26.10 at 2:26 am

Any chance that you could summarize what happened? Seems intriguing from the first para …


jacob 02.26.10 at 3:44 am

My favorite bad review is Eugene Genovese’s famous attack on his departmental colleague Herb Gutman in the TLS. I don’t know if it’s online, but this is the third sentence:

Mr Gutman’s The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925 provides the strongest empirical support so far for this cumulative and collective effort by many fine schoalrs, whose work, I regret to say, he slights, ignores, and distorts, rather than credits.

Slightly later:

Particularly shameful is Mr Gutman’s pillorying of Blassingame for assorted sins, while failing even to mention the considerable contribution to be found in his discussion of the folk culture at the heart of Mr Gutman’s own subject. IT has been a long time since an American scholar of some reputation chose to puff up his claims to an originality attainable only in heaven and in the blurbs of publishers by so denigrating the labour of his predecessors and colleagues. If only Mr Gutman’s cheek were at stake, no comment would be called for, and his performance might be dismissed as merely sad. . . . Yet Mr Gutman, whose analysis would seem to lend support to a nationalist interpretation, refuses to meet his elementary responsibility to offer an evaluation of the significance of his own work; he slips into silence, as he does on the political implications of every other part of his argument.


John Quiggin 02.26.10 at 6:33 am

After reading the review, I suspect that the author realised that a high profile libel action or similar scandal was the only way of getting anyone to pay attention to this book. On that score, she has certainly succeeded.


Chris Armstrong 02.26.10 at 10:05 am

You could be right – I read a piece in the Times Higher that annoyingly did not cite the review at all, but led me to expect something much, much worse than this. The reviewer is actually quite polite, and seems to me to pull some punches – I’d assume from his review that he really thinks this is a largely redundant descriptive exercise by someone with no real analytical understanding of the procedures she’s writing about – but heck, he doesn’t actually say that, does he? If she can sue successfully based on what he does say (which I presume she can’t), we’re all going to find it much harder writing reviews in future.


Ingrid Robeyns 02.26.10 at 7:05 pm

This is just so painful. How can anyone not be able to have any sense of proportionality? Next step is that we are going to bring to court editors of journals that publish articles in which we believe our work to be badly misrepresented and therefore our honour being attacked?
Luckily I am not a bookreview editor, but I read many my bookreviews and have written a dozen or two of bookreviews (including a few on CT – who’s our publisher by the way??), and I do not find this book review exceptionally negative at all.


djw 02.26.10 at 7:39 pm

This is just awful.

On the subject of negative reviews, I’ve always been a fan of Barry on Nozick. The whole thing is just golden, but here’s a nice sample:

“Finally the intellectual texture is of a sort of cuteness that would be wearing in a graduate student and seems to me quite indecent in someone who, from the lofty heights of a professorial chair, is proposing to starve or humiliate ten percent or so of his fellow citizens (if he recognizes the word) by eliminating all transfer payments through the state, leaving the sick, the old, the disabled, the mothers with young children and no breadwinner, and so on, to the tender mercies of private charity, given at the whim and pleasure of the donors and on any terms that they choose to impose. This is, no doubt, an emotional response, but there are, I believe, occasions when an emotional response is the only intellectually honest one. The concept of a “free fire zone,” for example, could appropriately be the subject of black comedy or bitter invective but not dispassionate analysis. Similarly, a book whose argument would entail the repeal of even the Elizabethan Poor Law must either be regarded as a huge joke or as a case of trahison des clercs, giving spurious intellectual respectability to the reactionary backlash that is already visible in other ways in the United States. My own personal inclination would be to treat the book as a joke, but since it is only too clear that others are prepared to take it seriously, I shall do so as well…..”


Barry 02.26.10 at 8:24 pm

Uh, yes, that was, um, me – yup, I wrote that. I made Nozick my b*tch.


Bloix 02.26.10 at 10:11 pm

Is it really true that anyone can simply press a pedal and the entire clanking machinery of the French criminal justice system will begin to belch and lurch and grind up ordinary people in its path? According to the link, this proceeding has been going on for a year and half now, and not a single official – prosecutor, judge, magistrate – has had the ability or the obligation to determine whether there is any reason for it to forward. And now an actual trial will be held, so that the defendant has to work up a full defense, with witnesses, evidence, and the threat of criminal liability – and no way to put a stop to it?

Can that really be so? If it is, what a ridiculous, inefficient, oppressive, capricious system the French have.


Bloix 02.26.10 at 10:32 pm

More –
I guess what I don’t understand, really, is who will prosecute this case? Will a French government-employed prosecutor really devote time and resources to working this piece-of-shit case up for trial? Do prosecutors really dance at the end of strings pulled by deranged academics? Hard to believe.


Sebastian 02.27.10 at 2:31 am

Book reviews are a serious issue – interesting case in Germany (though concerning ficition) is the feud between Martin Walser (one of the best known living German authors) and Marcel Reich-Ranicki, the Doyen of German literary criticism.
In 1974, Reich-Ranicki had written a highly polemical review of one of Walser’s books. The first sentence read: “Ein belangloser, ein schlechter, ein miserabler Roman.”
– an irrelevant, bad, awful novel.
28 years later, Walser published a novel “Death of a Critic” – said critic is, of course, an only thinly disguised stand-in for Reich-Ranicki. The novel caused a pretty serious literary scandal…

As for the “affair” at hand – it is hard to understand what she was thinking.


LFC 02.27.10 at 5:30 pm

Polemical reviews (unlike the mild one at issue here) no doubt have a long history. One 19th-century example:
Uncle Tom’s Cabin struck a raw nerve in the South…. The vehemence of southern denunciations of Mrs. Stowe’s ‘falsehoods’ and ‘distortions’ was perhaps the best gauge of how close they hit home…. The editor of the Southern Literary Messenger instructed his book reviewer: ‘I would have the review as hot as hellfire, blasting and searing the reputation of the vile wretch in petticoats who could write such a volume.'”
— J. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, p.90.


teraz kurwa my 02.27.10 at 6:04 pm

Somewhat related, there’s a new and rather controversial biography out of Ryszard Kapuscinski, the Polish star foreign correspondent and essayist. The author is, Artur Domoslawski, a prominent left wing foreign correspondent for Gazeta Wyborcza who specializes in Latin America. Kapuscinski’s widow is suing him for defaming his memory. She’s also gotten her lawyers to intimidate various foreign publishers into withdrawing their plans to publish the book in France, Italy, and Spain. Domoslawski apparently provides plenty of evidence that Kapuscinski was for much of his life a strong supporter of Communism and the People’s Republic, and that he wrote numerous political analyses for the Polish foreign intelligence services. The reception of the book offers an interesting in window into contemporary Polish politics. On the one you’ve got the liberals (in the European sense of the word) who are upset that he is airing the dirty laundry of one of their intellectual idols, and on the other there are the conservatives who are attacking Domoslawski for the fact that he presents Kapuscinski’s support for Communism with a great deal of sympathy.


Ben Tripp 02.27.10 at 11:43 pm

Good heavens. To think of the scurrilous things I’ve said, and the people I’ve said them to — I have just discovered a single advantage to languishing in these here United States. They can throw me in the oubliette forever without charge or trial, but I’m free to say what I will about it.


BillCinSD 02.27.10 at 11:53 pm

I think that if the author had just made a really good French food dish for the critic, none of this would have happened.


lgm 02.28.10 at 5:14 pm

Both the author and the editor are lazy. The author can’t bring herself to formulate her objections coherently. The editor can’t bring himself to formulate a coherent reply or to adjudicate the issues. The proper thing to do in this circumstance would be to find a third party, an independent expert reviewer, to offer an opinion on the factual issues: do judges make precident? Is is libelous to say so? If the editor had done his job properly, he would not be in this situation.

The editor is wrong to forward a personal email without authorization from it’s author. He is even wronger to publish it in a professional journal. He is wrong to publish such a self serving editorial. The proper way to put content like that into a professional journal editorial would be to have another member of the editorial board write it.


VV 02.28.10 at 5:37 pm

@lgm: how’s all of the above relevant to the absurd step of taking legal action against the reviewer?
This is horrible, and there should be significant academic reaction. I am sending in my letter today.


SqueakyRat 02.28.10 at 9:41 pm

I wonder what this person’s reaction would have been if John Cook Wilson had taken the bite out of her he did out of R. D. Archer-Hind’s edition of Plato’s Timaeus: “No unscholarly device seems wanting.”


Laleh 02.28.10 at 11:33 pm

Ben Tripp, you may be in the US, but you ain’t safe. The book editor being sued is actually an NYU prof!

LGM, you must be defending your pal. The absolute authoritarian whiney absurdity of that woman suing the book editor AT THE VERY LEAST requires an airing of her incompetent and incoherent letter. Being kicked out of academia is probably a better and more proportionate response.


snuh 03.01.10 at 7:09 am

The editor is wrong to forward a personal email without authorization from it’s author. He is even wronger to publish it in a professional journal.

oh come on she wrote a letter to the editor. surely that carries with it a reasonable expectaction that it might be published.


Ginger Yellow 03.01.10 at 1:48 pm

There’s one sentence in the review that I can even begin to imagine might qualify as libel under English law (no idea what the French standard is), and that one’s a real stretch. It’s just a statement of fact which could conceivably lower the subject’s reputation – though not likely – and might or might not be true. The rest is obviously fair comment. I’m 99% certain that even that sentence wouldn’t pass muster in England, so I find it bizarre that the case has been going on so long.


Substance McGravitas 03.01.10 at 9:33 pm

OT, but a very very unusual way to defend research practices.

A former University at Buffalo addictions researcher hired professional actors to testify on his behalf during an investigation into whether he fabricated data in federally funded studies, state prosecutors said Tuesday.

William Fals-Stewart paid three actors to speak by phone during a university misconduct hearing in 2007 – and then sued the state for $4 million when their false testimony helped exonerate him, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s office said.

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