Is Zadie Smith right on Trajan's column?
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?
At the risk of sounding miffed, my answer is “probably not”. Or at least -- although the existence these galleries are often assumed – there isn’t actually any evidence for them at all.
It is true than in antiquity the column didn’t stand in the glorious isolation that it now does. It was in the middle of a large building complex which included a vast hall, libraries and a temple to the deified emperor Trajan, whose ashes rested in the base of the column. (Don’t belief maps, like this one, that confidently mark the position of this temple (on the far left), recent excavations have put all that up in the air again).
The column (just to the right of the "temple" on the plan) was indeed in a courtyard flanked by Trajan’s libraries. But there is no evidence whatsoever for the form of their upper floors. These “viewing galleries” are entirely unattested. They are an archaeological invention designed precisely to get round the problem that I raised: namely that it seems so odd to have sculpted an intricate narrative that was to all intent and purposes invisible.
Of course, they might have existed. Archaeological inventions sometime strike lucky. But it is equally, if not more, likely that the sculptural remain effectively out of eye’s way. After all, there is no suggestion that the column of Marcus Aurelius was ever made visible like this.
So I think I am sticking to my guns.