Should authors reply to wrong-headed reviews? Is it a good idea to write in to the offending paper and point out that, despite the sweeping claims of their reviewer, you did in fact mention Pompey the Great (indeed devoted most of chapter 12 to him)/ that you didn’t mis-spell Caesar throughout/ that you are not nor ever have been a member of UKIP . . . or whatever?
In one way, of course it is. If reviews are part of a dialogue, then why silence the poor old author? Needless to say, reviewers on the TLS are not the sort to make crass errors – and, in any case, there is team of hawk-eyed editors who try to run to ground any mistakes that may have slipped through. But there are still a good many readers (myself included sometimes) who head straight for Letters page. There’s nothing like it for a ring-side seat at someone else’s literary row.
All the same, my advice to a friend about to pen an outraged letter would always be to think twice. It can often be more sensible to write the reply in your head, or even on the screen, but not to press the “send” button.
The truth is that no one ever scrutinises a review with quite the obsessive intensity as the book’s author. The chances are that your self-defence will actually draw attention to your alleged inadequacies. And there’s a high risk too that you’ll come across as more miffed than traduced. Unless the allegations are career threatening (plagiarism and the like) or your letter is drop-dead clever and witty, it may be better to hold your horses, to wait and see if anyone writes in on your behalf, and claim the dignified high ground .
What goes for the author also goes, even more so, for the criticized reviewer. So all this preamble is by way of saying that this post is about to (half-)break my own rule.
In last week’s TLS Letters, the excellent Zadie Smith commented on a review I had just published of a new book on the Roman “art of war”. I had said that one of the problems about interpreting the sculpture on Trajan’s and Marcus Aurelius’ columns in Rome was that their “visual narratives were virtually invisible from the ground”.
Zadie Smith objects – in the case of Trajan’s column – that it “originally stood in the middle of a courtyard surrounded by galleries from which viewing was possible.”
Is she right?