Express your opinions forcefully and colourfully

I haven’t said enough yet about Sholto Byrnes. I’ve said a little, but that little was a mere note – a mere listing of the things he said about Does God Hate Women? that were not true. I’m not sure that was quite adequate. I’m not going to say all that I could say about Sholto Byrnes, but I am going to add a little something.

For instance I’m going to point out that his vituperative and inaccurate review was apparently not enough for him; he had to take another swipe, just in passing, while talking about a different book.

Armstrong’s god is beyond our little explanations etc etc; ‘any suggestion of literalism is to fall into a gross and idolatrous anthropomorphism.’

Although this may come as a surprise to the millions of Christians who entertain thoughts of God as a jovial beardie – a celestial Frank Dobson, if you will – it is familiar territory for any student of theology or philosophy of religion. Which is why Armstrong is right to describe the analysis of the Dawkinsites, who have made the god they wish to dismiss into just such a being, as “disappointingly shallow” and “based on such poor theology”. It is also why the poisoned darts of Armstrong’s critics (see Johann Hari’s review of Does God Hate Women? in the NS of 6 July) fail to pierce her arguments. They are aimed at territory she does not wish to defend.

No they’re not. Our putative ‘poisoned darts’ are not aimed at her woolly idea of god, they are aimed at her bad and unfootnoted pseudo-scholarship on Mohammed and his marriage to a child. They are aimed at territory she has defended in more than one book. But Byrnes is not a precise or careful writer. Byrnes just throws things – not poisoned darts so much as whatever is nearest – an old boot, a sandwich, the dog, a stale muffin that looks exactly like the Blessed Virgin if you look at it the right way. Byrnes reads a book and has reactions to it and then takes his reactions to be things resembling facts. He felt hatred for our book, therefore it became true that our book was largely “torrents of invective” – when in fact that description fits at most one page of the book.

Sadly, and rather contemptibly, the Independent and its lawyer pretended to believe this explanation. Here’s what the lawyer had to say in response to our dispute of that assertion:

This is a comment and is in keeping with the rest of what is a strongly expressed review based on the writer’s honest belief. For the proper meaning of the expression it has to be read in the context of the preceding passage, including the word “excoriating”. No reader would expect this tag to be literally true or anything more than a figure of speech, to be understood in the light of the reviewer’s transparent and openly articulated dislike of the book. Reviewers, as you know, are entitled to be opinionated and to express their opinions forcefully and colourfully. Of course, Madeleine Bunting expresses similar views in her recent article on your book.

Yes, of course, we know, and we stipulated, that reviewers are entitled to be opinionated and to express their opinions forcefully and colourfully. We do not accept that that means they are entitled to make express their ‘opinions’ so forcefully and colourfully that they grossly misrepresent the book. We think it’s absurd to complain about bad reviews, and we fully expected bad reviews for this book. Reviews that say things that are untrue are another matter. We think there is a difference.

I’m an editor. I’m an editor in more than one place. If I got a review like that – I would reject it. It’s too stupid, too crass, too vulgar, too…bad to publish. The literary editor of the Indy accepted it, and then defended it. There’s something peculiar about that.

There’s also something very odd about the goddy turn at lefty newspapers and magazines in the UK – but more on that later.

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