By February 13, 2012 0 Comments Read More →

Okri v. Robertson, Rounds 1 & 2

Always eager for a good literary dust-up, I read with interest the news that Booker Prize winner Ben Okri had responded to comments made last month by his editor, Robin Robertson. In Sameer Rahim’s January 23 Telegraph article, “The Mystery of Poetry Editing: From T. S. Eliot to John Burnside,” Robertson, a Scotsman, claimed (or “confessed”) that he had rewritten some of the Nigerian author’s “Lagos patois,” adding:

“I hope it doesn’t show that it was an Aberdonian who was doing it.”

Okri responded with a letter the Telegraph published on February 10, proving that literary feuds don’t move as quickly as text-messaged rapper beefs:

“I read with amusement your article in which Robin Robertson claims he ‘redid’ my dialogue in Stars of the New Curfew. While it is true that Mr Robertson is a fine editor, he also has a tendency to exaggerate his own importance. . . . He certainly did not and could not ‘redo’ my dialogue. . . . One has to feel a little sorry for Mr Robertson that he feels it necessary to claim the hard-won achievement of others.”

Oh, snap! Responding to Okri’s response (“Ben Okri ‘Disappointment’ at Editor He Claims Re-wrote His Work,” by Richard Alleyne), Robertson backpedaled slightly:

“I worked on the text in the way I always do, and made a number of suggestions for improvement. Most if not all of these changes were accepted, and the book was duly published. In this case—as always—the writer had final approval. I never alter any text—within the body of the book or on the cover—without the author’s consent.”

Sensing weakness—evidenced by two successive sentences with clauses set off by em-dashes—Okri turned up the heat even more:

“The idea that anyone could have rewritten the dialogue in any of my stories is monstrous, and indeed suspect. In any other area of life this would be a libelous statement which might warrant being taken to the courts. But people are inclined to shoot their mouths off and it is my solemn responsibility to set the record straight.”

As a feud, it needs work—it certainly has a long way to go before assuming the proportions of Lish v. Carver, but there is potential here, provided Robertson recognizes his responsibility to keep things going.

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About the Author:

Keir Graff is the editor of Booklist Online and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix.

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