In a television appearance on the Dick Cavett Show in 1980, the novelist Mary McCarthy was asked which writers she regarded as overrated. McCarthy singled out the playwright and memoirist Lillian Hellman as “a bad writer, a dishonest writer,” and went on to say “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.'”
As Franklin Foer tells the story, “when Lillian Hellman heard the quip in her bed, she laughed. By the time her assistant arrived for work the next morning, Hellman had called her lawyer, and set in motion a $2.25 million libel suit against McCarthy.”
Did Hellman have a legal leg to stand on? I’ll come back to that question in a minute.
There’s no doubt that a scathing take-down of a book or movie or other work of art can provide a wicked source of pleasure to both the reviewer and her readers. Some deliciously disapproving book reviews may be found in this collection of pans, this one, this one (focusing on harsh assessments of literary classics), and this one (featuring caustic reviews by New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani). At least two books have chronicled the history of bookish slam pieces: The Fine Art of Literary Mayhem and Rotten Reviews Redux. And there is even a Hatchet Job of the Year award for the “best” worst review.
But can a negative review of a book or film or other creative work go too far and give rise to a successful legal claim against the reviewer? The answer: yes, but (thank heavens) rarely. To make sure your reviews don’t plunge you into legal hot water, you should bear in mind the sometimes fuzzy line between constitutionally protected opinion and legally actionable libel.