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When does a bad review go too far?

Some reviews read more like diatribes than reviews.  The term hatchet job is often bandied about when a reviewer really doesn't like a book. Today's post is about what sounds like a groundbreaking UK lawsuit: an author was awarded damages for a bad book review. This sounds like a dangerous precedent. A basic tenant of reviewing is that the reviewer is allowed to have an opinion and to express it. 

However, if you read about the suit in this post in Slate, you will see the author's victory wasn't because the review was bad;  it was because the review was inaccurate. The book was nonfiction, and the reviewer noted that her own name was listed as being interviewed. She claimed she had not in fact been interviewed, and thus cast doubt on the author's veracity and research. It turned out the reviewer had been interviewed, but she had forgotten about it. 

So, the answer to today's post subject is: A bad review goes too far when the reviewer states an absolute fact that turns out to be totally untrue.  Opinions cannot be proved wrong, but facts can.  Reviewers have an obligation to be right if they state something as fact and not merely opinion.

I have to say I agree with the judge. What do you think?

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( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 14th, 2011 07:50 pm (UTC)
Well yes, deliberate factual inaccuracy in a review is certainly too far (no, I don't believe the reviewer forgot she was interviewed) and I hate it when people cite this case as a complaint about objective reviewing.
Aug. 15th, 2011 12:56 am (UTC)
That reminds me of the time a football color guy brought up during a football game "yesterday I had dinner with Bengals' coach Sam Wyche*, and he said [insert whatever but it was provocative]." When Wyche was asked about it after the game, he emphatically denied eating dinner with the color guy. When pressed, the color guy admitted that he didn't "have dinner" with Wyche, but that "he sat a few tables over from Wyche, and they said hi in passing."

Two very different things, and if Wyche were so inclined, he could have cleaned the guy's clock in court.

*Okay, so it was twenty years ago. At least they were good back then.
Aug. 15th, 2011 02:55 am (UTC)
In some ways that's less egregious than denying something didn't happen that did happen. On the other hand, he clearly knew he was wrong when he "misspoke."

I was once in a restaurant when George Will was eating there. So I guess I can claim to have had lunch with him, right?
Aug. 15th, 2011 02:35 am (UTC)
Absolutely agreed.
Aug. 15th, 2011 02:56 am (UTC)
no pussy-footing around for you!
Aug. 15th, 2011 05:15 pm (UTC)
Not actaully sure. We get into a grey area where reviewers are forced to multiple-check everything, just in case. Honest mistackes should be allowed a retraction or correction...
Aug. 15th, 2011 05:37 pm (UTC)
I disagree on that one. I think if the reviewer is stating something as a hard, cold fact, he or she has a strict obligation to be sure that fact is correct. A reviewer can say "this is a terrible book; I could barely keep awake reading it" and that's a purely subjective assessment. But if a reviewer says "The author got the date of the invasion completely wrong" and it turns out the reviewer is the one who is wrong, then I think the reviewer should be held accountable.

Reviewers are giving advice on a book. People make buying decisions based on reviews, and reviewers know that. If you say "Don't bother with this book because it's twaddle," readers can see you didn't like the book. But if you say "Don't bother with this book because it is full of mistakes," they're going to assume you know what you're talking about. To me, the obligation is to be sure your opinion is given as opinion and all facts given are true.

I agree there are gray areas; statements like "a lot of experts disagree with that theory" are probably something that would be hard to prove either way. How many is a lot, for one thing.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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