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When bad reviews attack

Book reviews are not the preserve of the literary dilettantes — they have real power

The author, activist and journalist Laurie Penny recently released their/her  — the pronouns, as we will see in a moment, are not as straightforward as one/I might hope — latest book, Sexual Revolution: Modern Fascism and the Feminist Fightback. Like most of Penny’s other writing, it is strongly polemical in its arguments and perspectives, and, like Penny’s other publicly expressed views, it has aroused strong opinions, mainly from feminist writers who do not share the author’s views. 

Many people might believe that “all publicity is good publicity”

Rachel Cooke described the book in The Observer  as “comically relentless… oddly reminiscent of a superannuated self-help manual” and an unimpressed Sarah Ditum called Penny’s arguments “inadvertently appalling” in The Times. Perhaps most damning of all was Julie Bindel’s review in The Critic, in which she lambasted Sexual Revolution as partial and misleading, and concluded that: “Despite her impressive brains and talent, Penny chooses to align herself to posturers and virtue-signallers as she laments, ‘I sit at my laptop with my hands hovering over the keys and my fingers lose their purchase on the ledge of the present’. Meanwhile, actual feminist campaigners are getting their hands dirty and tackling the myriad problems women face in the real world.” 

Bindel’s piece attracted some controversy not just because of its damning denunciation of Penny’s arguments and “grating” style, but because she referred to Penny throughout as “she’. The author’s outraged publisher Bloomsbury demanded that Penny be referred to be her preferred pronouns of “they/them”, and the author described this magazine’s actions to the Evening Standard as “rude and childish”; meanwhile, the Critic’s publisher Olivia Hartley robustly defended Bindel’s review and the magazine’s stance, saying “The Critic exists to push back against a self-regarding and dangerous consensus that finds critical voices troubling, triggering, insensitive and disrespectful. The point is not provocation or trolling… we would not expect any of our contributors to have change their language to suit the ever-changing beliefs of other people.” The review has not been altered. 

Many people might believe in the old canard that “all publicity is good publicity”, but Penny is not one of them. They/she has instead announced that the unflattering reviews of her book have led them/her to suffer complex post-traumatic stress disorder, or CPTSD, and that after “misogynistic, transphobic media monstering” and “wildly hateful reviews and straight-up personal attacks”, during which they/she was “mocked and slut shamed and misgendered and lied about and defamed”, Penny had panic attacks that led them/her to believe that they/she was ill with Covid-19 but were in fact the expression of her/their body’s reaction to the reviews that they/she had received. With a swipe at the “weak, feeble and frankly staggeringly unprofessional” bullies who had been unkind to them/her, Penny noted that “it’s considered unprofessional to respond to reviews, but in this case, those involved in the hit-job are the ones who behaved unprofessionally …they knew exactly what they were doing and frankly they ought to be ashamed of themselves.” 

Penny’s opinion cannot comfortably be dismissed as peremptorily as Rowling has done

The reaction was polarised between those who admire Penny and those who do not. Their/her most high-profile detractor, JK Rowling, decided to mark International Women’s Day by openly criticising them/her, tweeting “you’ve been flinging terms like fascist and transphobe against women who disagree with you for a very long time. I don’t recall you showing the slightest empathy for other women’s trauma while you dismissed their, in my view, reasonable and rational concerns…you claim to be suffering PTSD because of *bad book reviews*, [which] are part and parcel of being a writer. If they cause you equivalent trauma to being bombed out of your house or witnessing the murder of loved ones, maybe find a job where dishing it out, but not being able to take it, is a key requirement.” 

As someone without a dog in this particular fight, I was initially minded to view the contretemps with the usual amused detachment that I reserve for the spectacle of watching two far better-known writers than I publicly disagreeing over an existential issue. And then I thought about the matter again, and found myself coming down on Penny’s side. Although I cannot offer any criticism or praise for Sexual Revolution, which I have not read — “it seemed not for the likes of me” — I have no doubt that Penny is a talented, committed writer, author of nine books to date, who is contributing their/her perspective to the national media with heartfelt flair. It is also entirely the professional right of the likes of Ditum, Cooke and Bindel to find fault with their/her arguments and approach (and, as someone who has both questioned and enjoyed their work in the past, I would disagree with their designation as “weak, feeble and frankly staggeringly unprofessional’), but I would argue that this has fallen well short of bullying and instead remains within the sphere of justified comment.

However, Penny’s opinion cannot comfortably be dismissed as peremptorily as Rowling has done. Everyone who has written a book, or several, will know the uncomfortable, even embarrassing, experience of receiving a bad review, even if they are as established within the contemporary media firmament as Penny is. Writing a book is not an easy occupation — it takes months, if not years, and is highly unlikely to make its author a great deal of money — and there is an inevitable moment of self-exposure when the final product is made available. And although book reviewers now err on the side of kindness, even generosity, most of the time when it comes to assessing their peers’ work, there are those who are happy to sharpen the hatchet and deliver what they hope will be a fatal blow purely to satisfy their ego — or, indeed, because it is funnier to write caustically about a bad book than it is to praise a good one. 

As someone who has endured my own share of bullying and trolling, I feel instinctive sympathy with anyone who suffers a series of bad book reviews; this applies just as much to Jacob Rees-Mogg, whose 2019 book The Victorians received the worst reviews that I can remember for a supposedly serious non-fiction title, as it does to Laurie Penny. 

Yet sometimes, to misquote Freud, a bad book is a bad book. And in these circumstances, it is the duty of the critic to roll up his or her sleeves, sigh and write a suitably damning thousand words about the failings and drawbacks of the title at hand, in a warning to the curious not to waste their £20 on buying it. All that one can hope is that the fair-minded writer will do this more in sorrow than in anger, and that we can all remain as detached and objective as we can, and that the wicked temptation to polish one’s most damning one-liners for the reader’s delight can be manfully — or womanfully — overcome. 

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