The Players: Niall Ferguson, writer, historian, brainy professor-author at Harvard who isn't afraid of rebutting a bad review with a lawsuit; Pankaj Mishra, writer, essayist, brainy reviewer-author for the London Review of Books who isn't afraid of unleashing a scathing review
The Opening Serve: The spat first started earlier this month when Mishra reviewed Ferguson's book, Civilization in the London Review of Books. Mishra's extended and unflattering review lumped Ferguson together with writers who exhibited a knack of writing "white people’s histories" and notes that Ferguson "sounds like the Europeans described by V.S. Naipaul – the grandson of indentured labourers – in A Bend in the River, who ‘wanted gold and slaves, like everybody else’, but also ‘wanted statues put up to themselves as people who had done good things for the slaves.'" Ferguson wrote back in a letter published on November 17. "It is not my habit to reply to hostile book reviews, but a personal attack that amounts to libel is another matter," wrote Ferguson. "... but in reality his review is a crude attempt at character assassination, which not only mendaciously misrepresents my work but also strongly implies that I am a racist." Adding, "The London Review of Books is notorious for its left-leaning politics. I do not expect to find warm affection in its pages. Much of what I write is simply too threatening to the ideological biases of your coterie. And closed, "I am, I repeat, owed an apology." Mishra responded: " Ferguson’s few (and mostly pejorative) references to Gandhi don’t compensate for his suppression of Asian and African voices in his books. More revealingly, he thinks that two vaguely worded sentences 15 pages apart in a long paean to the superiority of Western civilisation are sufficient reckoning with the extermination of ten million people in the Congo."
The Return Volley: Intent on proving, in the most wordy of ways, that he isn't a racist, Ferguson responded to Mishra's response. "Pankaj Mishra is now in full and ignominious retreat," wrote Ferguson. "In his response he nowhere denies that this was his allegation; nor does he deny that he intended to make it ... My book is not a ‘paean to the superiority of Western civilisation’, as Mishra describes it in a last pathetic salvo. I explicitly disavow triumphalism in the introduction." Adding, "I am still waiting for an apology, from both Pankaj Mishra and the editor who published his defamatory article." Mishra, responded to that letter as well, "It is hard, even with Google, to keep up with Ferguson’s many claims and counter-claims." He continues, "It says something about the political culture of our age that Ferguson has got away with this disgraced worldview for as long as he has. Certainly, it now needs to be scrutinised in places other than the letters page of the LRB." This Thanksgiving weekend in The Guardian, Ferguson upped the ante--demanding an apology and threatened to sue:
He now acknowledges that I am no racist. Any decent person would make an unconditional apology and stop there. But Mishra proves incapable of doing the right thing. His mealy-mouthed acknowledgment is qualified by the offensive suggestion that I lack 'the steady convictions of racialist ideologues', to whom his original review so outrageously compared me...
The basic insinuation [I am making] is that Mishra either did not read my book properly or if he did he was reckless. I find it staggering that the LRB is standing by him. I spoke to the editor Mary-Kay Wilmers and said: "Don't force my hand by forcing me to put it in the hands of lawyers." All I have got back is weasel words.
And the New York Times points out that this isn't Ferguson's first tangle with an unimpressed reviewer of Civilization. Last March, they report, after Alex von Tunzelmann in a review of Civilization in the Evening Standard said Ferguson's writing was 'history without the nasty bits"' Ferguson posted a notice to ICorrect, stating: "Clearly von Tunzelmann didn’t quite get that far ... This is called ‘reviewing a book without the nasty bits’… like reading it."
What They Say They're Fighting About: Although they're not saying it clearly or going about it in the most scientific or simplest way (arguing about page numbers versus length of sentences which are all wrapped up in high-brow, academic jargon), the argument here is simply whether or not Ferguson is a racist.
What They're Really Fighting About: Pride and the art of writing. What might be lost in the maybe-maybe-not racist attacks here is that this whole spat is that its Mishra's and Ferguson's chance to show off their skills as accomplished writers. They're attacking one another, sure, but each writer is trying to show off his writer cred in his own way--hence the length of the review, the responses, and the flowery, crackling sentences that each writer uses to throw jabs at the other.
Who's Winning Now: Mishra. Ideally, and Ferguson's literary agent would agree, we'd all be talking about the brilliance of Civilization. But we're not. Instead we're talking about Mishra, Mishra, Mishra. Through his lengthy review and the responses when Ferguson's played along, he's managed to find an avenue and show that he's quite a brilliant and analytical writer on his own. And that this isn't Ferguson's sole run-in with his book, it looks to be that he's more interested in talking controversy than he is talking about the quality of his book. And that,in itself, is more troubling.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.