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section heading icon     reviews

This page highlights questions about literary, artistic, film, music and restaurant reviews.

It covers -

The following page considers reviews by non-professionals, in particular 'gripe sites'.

section heading icon     introduction

Australian and overseas courts have long recognised that -

  • reviews of the arts and of businesses perform valuable functions as entertainment and consumer protection,
  • there is subjectivity in aesthetic judgments about performance and literary, musical or artistic expression
  • opinions may be honestly held and strongly expressed but acceptable because not malicious and because they are presented as opinion rather than fact
  • audiences have some discernment, drawing on other sources of information (including their own experience) and a capacity to assess statements by a critic.

That recognition has been reflected in a history of 'rotten reviews', some of which resulted in defamation action and on occasion have been blamed for the death of a theatrical production, end of a performer's career (or erosion of livelihood) or closure of a new restaurant or other venue.

Reviews do not exist outside defamation law but arguably have a special status, with action often being determined on specific circumstances.

section heading icon     issues

Perceptions of what is acceptable in reviewing have changed over time, reflecting community standards (influenced by familiarity and by egregious abuses) and the impact on courts of efforts by the 'reviewed' to gain redress.

From a historical perspective most contemporary reviewing seems quite tame compared to the norm in 1890s Vienna or 1920s New York and Sydney, where there appears to have been substantial judicial and community acceptance of reviewing red in tooth and claw.

On occasion that was partly due to the verve with which reviews, however unfair, even spiteful, were written. It has also been attributed to the availability of competing reviews, with suggestions that there is less pressure to be fair when consumers have a number of information sources about the worth of a work or performance. A single review, however painful, might thus not kill a theatrical production, close a restaurant or condemn a new novel to the remainder bins.

Literary critic Clive James, in discussing contemporary snark (reviews aimed at boosting the reviewer) commented

Adverse book reviews there have always been, and probably always should be. At their best, they are written in defence of a value, and in the tacit hope that the author, having had his transgressions pointed out, might secretly agree that his book is indeed lousy. All they attack, or seem to attack, is the book. But a snark blatantly attacks the author. It isn't just meant to retard the author's career, it is meant to advance the reviewer's, either by proving how clever he is or simply by injuring a competitor.

Mencken more succinctly sniffed that "Criticism is prejudice made plausible", in contrast to Sainte-Beuve's claim that a critic is "a man whose watch is five minutes ahead of other people's".

Kenneth Tynan aped Wilde in claiming that "a critic is a man who knows the way but can't drive the car" and that -

Critics are consumers of one art, drama, and producers of another, criticism. What counts is not their opinion, but the art with which it is expressed ... The best informed man will be a bad critic if his style is bad.

David Mamet argued that the "World's Perfect Theatrical Review" was -

I never understood the theater until last night. Please forgive everything I've ever written. When you read this I'll be dead.

Norman Lebrecht suggested that -

Bad critics go to a show eager to fawn or find fault. Good critics rush to judgement before the curtain falls. Great critics take their seats, whether in a Soho studio on a Monday morning or at the Metropolitan Opera on gala night prepared to fall in love. They may despise the producers and question the credentials of every cast member but when the lights go down their breathing quickens like a child's on its birthday. Their verdict may amount to defamation and damnation in a brutal phrase that will resound for a generation.

Others have noted that some creators have a capacity to strike back when criticised. The underrated Eduard Hanslick (1825-1904), for example, is now best known through caricature as Beckmesser in Wagner's Die Meistersinger. Martin Amis noted that writing is the only art in which practitioner and critic share the same medium.

There has been surprisingly little writing about self-regulation, ie the extent to which abuses are restricted by condemnation on the part of peers rather than by lawsuits.

Churton Collins' scathing review of a characteristically inept work by Edmund Gosse for example appears to have generated support for Gosse and condemnation of Collins. Housman's condemnation of Benjamin Jowett's Plato as "the best translation of a Greek philosopher which has ever been executed by a person who understood neither philosophy nor Greek" in contrast seems to have been embraced by the literati.

Colin McGinn's 2007 review of On Consciousness by fellow academic Ted Honderich complained that -

This book runs the full gamut from the mediocre to the ludicrous to the merely bad. It is painful to read, poorly thought out, and uninformed. It is also radically inconsistent. ... His instincts, at least, are not always wrong. It is a pity that his own efforts here are so shoddy, inept, and disastrous.

Elsewhere being savaged by a particular reviewer could become a sign of quality and even increase the price of the criticised work, for example certifying that it was avant garde or merely worth a blast from the olympian heights of the New York Herald Tribune or Le Figaro.

Much criticism seems merely curious, like Auden's infatuation for Tolkien's novels (mocked by Edmund Wilson in 'Oo, Those Awful Orcs!', The Nation 1956), Henry James's characterisation of early Proust as "inconceivable boredom associated with the most extreme ecstasy which it is possible to imagine" or Aldous Huxley's description of Proust as a hermaphrodite toadlike creature "spooning his own tepid juice over his face and body". Blackwood's dismissed Keats' Endymion by sniffing

We venture to make our small prophecy that his bookseller will not a second time venture 50 pounds on anything he can write. It is a better and wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet. So back to the shop, Mr. John.

with Matthew Arnold snottily complaining that in Keats there is "something underbred and ignoble, as of a youth ill brought up".

Courts in Australia and elsewhere have embraced notions of 'fair comment' in the public interest, with an emphasis on opinion as distinct from misrepresentation of fact. That opinion may be wrongheaded or inept but if it is honestly held and serves the community it is defensible. Would most people read reviews that were so cautious as to provide little assessment of the subject's value?

In 2007 for example a UK appeal court found that an Evening Standard review by Veronica Lee of Keith Burstein's opera Manifest Destiny, which featured the implication that the work made suicide bombers appear heroic, was fair comment on a matter of public interest.

In the original court decision the publisher was ordered to pay Burstein £8,000. The appeal judge concluded that the review was fair comment, with Burstein being ordered to repay the £8,000 and pay the Standard's costs, estimated at £67,000. Burstein announced that he would appeal to the European Court of Human Rights after failing to win permission for his case to be heard by the House of Lords. In 2008 he was declared bankrupt after failing to pay the newspaper and failing to convince the chief registrar that payment should be delayed until after any hearing by the European Court.

section heading icon     incidents

Some idea of the perils of criticism is provided by the experience of arts and food critic Leo Schofield. He was sued by an Australian restaurant in 1984 after a tough restaurant review in the Sydney Morning Herald featured the comment that he had been served a lobster that resembled "albino walrus". The publisher paid out $100,000.

The Coco Roco restaurant case, decided by the High Court during 2007 in what was exaggeratedly described by some as "the end of criticism", featured description by Herald critic Matthew Evans that flavours "jangled like a car crash", a sauce was a "wretched garnish" and that "more than half the dishes I've tried at Coco Roco are simply unpalatable". Coco Roco closed three months after the review, a demise blamed on the reviewer.

Perhaps expectations are different in the UK. Schofield contemporary A A Gill has gained attention for describing dishes as having the taste, texture and temperature of "happy youthful vomit", as like "eating sweet Magimixed maggots" and tasting "as if your mouth had been used as the swab bin in an animal hospital".

He notoriously savaged a London restaurant in 2002 by asking "Why is there never a Palestinian suicide bomber when you need one?" in a review that featured the claim -

My chickpea soup was like sucking wet sand, the Blonde's bourride was an accident involving a hair-dryer and an aquarium, the flat chicken supreme was a battered hen, the ham was sweaty and curling, the wine (I'm told) was having a sex change to vinegar, and the service was resting while its agent placed the treatment/novel/play.

Five years later the high court in Belfast awarded £25,000 damages to Goodfellas Restaurant & Pizzeria over review in the Irish News by critic Caroline Workman. In 2008 Northern Ireland lord chief justice Kerr, quashed that verdict and ordered a retrial, commenting that

I have decided that there was misdirection in the present case. ... Although I consider it likely that a properly directed jury would conclude that sufficient factual substratum existed for the comment which constituted the preponderance of the article, I cannot be certain that this is so and I would therefore order a retrial.

The publisher's representative had argued that in the UK anything identified as a review is to be accepted as 'comment' (irrespective of presentation as opinion or fact); the bare substratum of fact required to sustain that comment is that the reviewer had the experience he or she claims, in this instance that the meal was ordered and served; 'fair comment' is defined as any comment an honest person could have drawn from the available facts; a comment may be called 'fair', "however exaggerated, or even prejudiced, the language may be"; malice has no power to mitigate a defence of fair comment, as long as the reviewer genuinely holds the views he expressed.

A subsequent review of the same restaurant featured the comment, unfair or otherwise, that "I'd have guessed I was eating thin strips of mole poached in Ovaltine" rather than pollo marsala.

Matthew Norman described the French onion soup at another restaurant as -

a thin, pernicious liquid seemingly created by adding a few ladles of hot water to a dollop of Marmite - this suggested the dribblings of a geriatric yak in the latter stages of renal disease.

UK Daily Mirror columnist Matthew Wright more expensively slammed David Soul in a 1998 review of Nick Darke's The Dead Monkey, resulting in £20,000 damages plus £150,000 legal costs. Wright did not attend the performance, although claiming that it was "without doubt the worst West End show I have seen". He also incorrectly claimed that only 45 people were at the performance, which was shown to have been attended by three times that number, and that ushers had begged the audience not to walk out.

Far more entertaining was watching the audience watch David Soul. Stunned American tourists could hardly believe the balding old man with a wobbly beer gut was the handsome guy they remembered from his Hutch days. Muffled sniggering turned to hoots of derisive laughter ... London's Whitehall Theatre was so empty it would have made more sense to use it to shelter the homeless than carry on with the show.

In 2004 Schofield lamented of the National Museum in Canberra that -

It was and remains an unmitigated disaster, an obscenely extravagant monument to architectural ego, faddishness, misguided political correctness, parochial vanities, compromise and technomania. Visiting is a dispiriting business. Finding anything to like about it is almost impossible.

That is of course rather mild compared to some of the brickbats thrown at masters such as Gropius, Mackintosh, Le Corbusier, Lutyens or Seidler.

The latter famously sued Patrick Cook for defamation over a 1982 cartoon in The National Times, with the jury finding that although the cartoon was defamatory, a defence of fair comment applied as the cartoon was an expression of opinion rather than fact and an opinion which an honest man might have held.

Film, theatre and literary criticism has attracted attention for its wrongheadedness and because some venom has long outlasted the object of criticism.

Dorothy Parker for example dismissed Marion Davies as having only "two expressions, joy and indigestion" and panned Katharine Hepburn's performance in The Lake as running "the whole gamut of emotions, from A to B". Brooks Atkinson claimed that "Farley Granger played Mr Darcy with all the flexibility of a telegraph pole". Katherine Mansfield savaged a contemporary in 1917 by writing -

E M Forester never gets any further than warming the teapot. He's a rare fine hand at that. Feel this teapot. Is it not beautifully warm? Yes, but there ain't going to be no tea.

Mark Twain more succinctly said of Henry James that "Once you put down one of his books, you simply can't pick it up again". Oscar Wilde assessed Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop by noting "One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing". William Cobbett claimed that -

Indeed the whole of Milton's poem, Paradise Lost, is such barbarous trash, so outrageously offensive to reason and to common sense that one is naturally led to wonder how it can have been tolerated by a people, amongst whom astronomy, navigation, and chemistry are understood.

Thackeray vented his spleen on Gulliver's Travels as "filthy in word, filthy in thought, furious, raging, obscene" and evidence of Swift's "diseased mind". Byron merely found Chaucer "obscene and contemptible". The influential Quarterly Review dismissed Percy Bysshe Shelley's Prometheus Unbound in 1820 as "Absolutely and intrinsically unintelligible".

A later critic dismissed The Great Gatsby as falling "into the class of negligible novels". A D Hope dismissed Patrick White's The Tree of Man as "pretentious and illiterate verbal sludge". Stalin-toady Tikhon Krennikov damned work by Shostakovich as "neuroticism, escapism, abnormal, repulsive pathology"; Mark Twain said "Wagner's music is not as bad as it sounds". Baudelaire more memorably said -

I love Wagner; but the music I prefer is that of a cat hung up by its tail outside a window and trying to stick to the panes of glass with its claws

Decca rejected the Beatles in 1962 with the comment that "We don't like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out". Dorothy Parker skewered televangelist Aimee Semple McPherson's autobiography In the Service of the King by writing -

It may be that this autobiography is set down in sincerity, frankness, and simple effort. It may be, too, that the Statue of Liberty is situated in Lake Ontario

In 1983 UK actress Charlotte Cornwell was awarded £10,000 for a review by Nina Myskow in the Sunday People that warned -

She can't sing, her bum is too big, and she has the sort of stage presence that jams lavatories.

That criticism was gentler than the review of the Cherry Sisters (or by Ruskin of Whistler) noted earlier in this profile. Cornwell had reputedly spent over £70,000 in costs in the initial case and appeal. Beryl Bainbridge's mordant Harriet Said was rejected by one publisher in 1958 with the words "What repulsive little creatures you have made the central characters, repulsive beyond belief". It was not published until 1972.

Criticism by journalists often seems tame when compared with reviews in scholarly and professional journals, where scholars such as AE Housman and Hugh Trevor-Roper metaphorically eviscerated opponents before dancing on their graves. Academia is another country: they do things differently there, without the niceties of a Geneva Convention.

Reviews within publishing, film production and music businesses can be even crueller and more inept. Orwell's Animal Farm was famously rejected by Knopf, for example, on the basis that it was "impossible to sell animal stories in the USA". The same publisher turned down English-language rights to the Diary of Anne Frank as -

very dull ... a dreary record of typical family bickering, petty annoyances and adolescent emotions. Sales would be small because the main characters were neither familiar to Americans nor especially appealing. Even if the work had come to light five years ago, when the subject was timely, I don't see that there would have been a chance for it.

Pearl Buck's The Good Earth got the thumbs down on the basis that US readers were "not interested in anything on China". Isaac Bashevis Singer was dismissed as "It's Poland and the rich Jews again", Nabokov's Lolita was "too racy", Baldwin's Giovanni's Room was "hopelessly bad" and assessment of Sylvia Plath featured the comment that "there certainly isn't enough genuine talent for us to take notice".

section heading icon     responses

Abraham Lincoln, a very successful corporate lawyer before moving into the Oval Office, minimised exposure in a review that famously commented "people who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like" - legally impeccable but not very informative.

Some authors and business owners have copped criticism on the chin, rather than heading to court, accepting that expressions of personal nastiness or mere incomprehension are part of engagement with the world. Some restaurants have questioned whether a single bad review could close a restaurant. Others have noted that particular critics are perceived as extravagant and that being outrageously damned is one way to get into the public consciousness, particularly if good word of mouth offsets brickbats from 'Mr Nasty'.

Max Reger (in a response that has variously been attributed to James Joyce and Evelyn Waugh) responded to one rotten review by writing -

I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review in front of me. Soon it will be behind me.

Critics have occasionally claimed that defamation judgements will be the death of freedom, truth or merely spirited writing. After the High Court's 2007 decision in John Fairfax v Gacic, for example SMH restaurant critic Simon Thomsen commented that "anything short of hagiography will be defamatory", with Leo Schofield asking

If a poor review leads to diminished returns at the box office of the theatre are we now going to say that it is due to the review and not to the quality of the work?

section heading icon     studies

Collections of negative reviews are a minor but sprightly genre. They include Creme de la Phlegm (Carlton: Miegunyah Press 2006) edited by Angela Bennie,
Bad Press: The Worst Critical Reviews Ever! (London: Barron's 2002) edited by Laura Ward and Pushcart's Complete Rotten Reviews and Rejections (New York: Pushcart Press 1998) edited by Bill Henderson & André Bernard.

A persuasive defence of Hanslick appears in Peter Gay's magisterial Freud, Jews and Other Germans: Masters and Victims in Modernist Cultures (New York: Oxford Uni Press 1978).

Insights into the vicissitudes of criticism appear in letters and memoirs by or biographies of critics, for example The Letters of Kenneth Tynan (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1994) and Diaries of Kenneth Tynan (London: Bloomsbury 2001), Mimi Sheraton's Eating My Words: An Appetite For Life (New York: Morrow 2004), Elin McCoy's The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr. and the Reign of American Taste (New York: Ecco 2005), Steven Shaw's Turning the Tables (New York: HarperCollins 2005), Ruth Reichl's Garlic & Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise (New York: Penguin 2005). Other insights are offered in Sandra McColl's 1998 'Karl Kraus and Music Criticism: The Case of Max Kalbeck' in 82 Musical Quarterly 2, Who Keeps the Score on the London Stages? (London: Routledge 2000) by Kalin Stefanova, Never Order Chicken on a Monday: Kitchen Chronicles of an Undercover Food Critic (Sydney: Random 2007) by Matthew Evans and Kitchen Con: Writing on the Restaurant Racket (New York: Arcade 2007) by Trevor White.

René Wellek's eight volume A History of Modern Criticism: 1750-1950 (New Haven: Yale Uni Press 1955-1992) offers an account of grand theory in literary criticism, rather than daggers in the back.

section heading icon     Australian cases

Salient Australian cases include -

  • John Fairfax Publications Pty Ltd v Gacic [2007] HCA 28 (14 June 2007) | here

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version of July 2010
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