Can you sue over a bad book review?

Harvard historian and author Niall Ferguson received a bad review from the London Review of Books and now tells the editor he may take legal action.

Historian Niall Ferguson says he told editor Mary-Kay Wilmers, "Don't force my hand by forcing me to put it in the hands of lawyers."

The literary community is holding its collective breath. Not since Paul Theroux and V.S. Naipaul famously fell out, some say, has today's literary world seen such a clash of titans.

After an angry exchange of letters, this past weekend, Harvard historian Niall Ferguson threatened legal action against the London Review of Books, whose writer Pankag Mishra wrote a negative review of Mr. Ferguson’s most recent book, “Civilization: The West and the Rest.” In response, Ferguson told the LRB’s editor, “Don’t force my hand by forcing me to put it in the hands of lawyers.”

Wrote the New York Times, “It all started in the Nov. 3 issue of the London Review of Books, where Mr. Mishra, in a lengthy assessment of Mr. Ferguson’s book “Civilization,” accused him of writing triumphalist ‘white people’s histories…’ ”

In the review, Mishra called Ferguson “homo atlanticus redux” who “writes about being seduced away from a stodgy Oxbridge career … to the United States, ‘where the money and power actually were.’ ” He goes on, making reference to Ferguson’s written support of the US “devoting a larger percentage of its vast resources to making the world safe for capitalism and democracy” (even if necessary by military force, adds Mishra) and referencing an April 2003 New York Times Magazine piece in which Ferguson writes “I am a fully paid-up member of the neoimperialist gang.”

“Which gang you belong to may be at the heart of the conflict arising between right-leaning Ferguson and left-leaning Mishra,” writes the LA Times about the spat.

In an outraged 900-word letter to the editor published Nov. 17 in the LRB, Ferguson writes:

“It is not my habit to reply to hostile book reviews, but a personal attack that amounts to libel is another matter. Pankaj Mishra purports to discuss my book 'Civilisation: The West and the Rest,' but in reality his review is a crude attempt at character assassination, which not only mendaciously misrepresents my work but also strongly implies that I am a racist....

“The London Review of Books is notorious for its left-leaning politics. I do not expect to find warm affection in its pages. Much of what I write is simply too threatening to the ideological biases of your coterie. Nevertheless, this journal used, once, to have a reputation for intellectual integrity and serious scholarship. Pankaj Mishra’s libellous and dishonest article brings the LRB as well as himself into grave disrepute.”

Ferguson went on to demand an apology “for [Mishra’s] highly offensive and defamatory allegation of racism.”

(It is worth noting here Ferguson is married to the Somali activist and writer, Ayaan Hirsi Ali.)  

Mishra struck back with this response, “Ferguson is no racist, in part because he lacks the steady convictions of racialist ideologues like Stoddard. Rather, his writings, heralding an American imperium in 2003, Chimerica in 2006, and the ‘Chinese Century’ in 2011, manifest a wider pathology among intellectuals once identified by Orwell: ‘the instinct to bow down before the conqueror of the moment, to accept the existing trend as irreversible.’ ”

Receiving less of an apology than a further critique of his philosophy, Ferguson fired off another, angrier letter, delivered with a threat. As he told the Guardian newspaper Nov. 25, "If he won't apologise for calling me a racist, I will persecute him until he does…The basic insinuation [I am making] is that Mishra either did not read my book properly or if he did he was reckless. I find it staggering that the LRB is standing by him.” Added Ferguson, “I spoke to the editor Mary-Kay Wilmers and said: 'Don't force my hand by forcing me to put it in the hands of lawyers.' "

As of this week, the battle wages on.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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