Niall Ferguson in Literary Spat with London Review of Books

Niall Ferguson
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Maybe it's not such a good idea to review the work of a self-proclaimed "vendetta person."

Last April, asked by The Guardian whether he ever forgives a slight, Harvard history professor Niall Ferguson replied, "Never. I'm completely unforgiving."

After publishing a damaging review of Ferguson's latest book, "Civilization: The West and the Rest," it looks like the London Review of Books is about to find out just how truthfully Ferguson spoke. In a letter to the editor, Ferguson responded to the review by accusing the writer, columnist Pankaj Mishra, of portraying him as a racist. He demanded an apology for this "libelous and dishonest article." A back-and-forth row ensued.

Reached for comment, Ferguson maintains that his latest work "explicitly disavows all racial explanations for Western economic and political predominance." In his assessment, the whole point of the book is to demonstrate how good institutions can work "regardless of the country where they are adopted, regardless of culture tradition, regardless of skin color."

Ferguson said he intends to keep up his complaints in the press until the reviewer relents.

"The really important point to get here is that I have received many critical reviews in my time, and I accept criticism where it is warranted in my work. But this was not a legitimate critique of my book; it was primarily a character assassination," Ferguson said.

It now looks like this very public spat may move from the pages of the London Review of Books into court. "I can't imagine why the London Review of Books wanted to stand by this man. But, clearly, I have to reserve the right to take legal advice if they are not going to apologize," Ferguson said.

In Ferguson's opinion, the review stands to hurt the publication commercially too: "Any serious person will conclude that it is not worth reading the London Review of Books anymore because they don't employ serious reviewers," he said. "They employ hacks, liars, defamers—that's really what this boils down to."

This post has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: December 7, 2011.

An earlier version of the Dec. 4 post "Niall Ferguson in Literary Spat with London Review of Books" misquoted Niall Ferguson. In fact, Ferguson referred to "culture tradition" in paragraph four of the article.

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