Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Shame...

I've sat on this post for a little while, but I'll put it out there now. Awhile back I got a rather nasty response to my post on Meeting Hannibal. This was actually my first blog post ever, but I guess people still come across it. The response reminded me a lot of a few "reviews" I've received for the book on Amazon. I use those quotation marks because I question whether some of these "reviewers" ever read my book before forming their negative opinions of it. I don't like to respond to such reviews, but when somebody comes to me and makes the comments, I do feel free to dialog with them. So, let me give you an example of the type of thing I mean and the way I respond to it (when I get the chance).

So, here's what Mario said, unedited in any way...

Sir,

As an historian I am amazed at your irresponsibility in portraying this subject that you bill as a "European and African struggle". Firstly, it was a clash between two of the greatest powers of antiquity, driven by the usual motive, greed! Secondly, Hannibal was not black; he was a Carthaginian, therefore a Phoenician, therefore a Semite. There is ample documentation available that attests to this, up to and including DNA evidence that clearly links the Carthaginians to the modern inhabitants of present day Lebanon.


I for one do not doubt that Hannibal very likely had African troops in his army, but all historical accounts that I can personally think of are quite clear in describing his army as polyglot and largely mercenary in nature; it is a testament to Hannibal's genius as a military leader that he was able to turn so many different nationalities into an effective fighting force. It is in this respect that your depiction is largely off the mark.

Nonetheless, my biggest problem with your book is that you insist in portraying the Punic Wars as a racial struggle, and for that you should be ashamed of yourself. Whatever foibles the ancient Romans may have had, race based bigotry was not one of them. One of the biggest reasons why they were as successful as they were was because, generally speaking, when they did conquer a territory, they respected local customs and placed the locals in charge.

If your objective is to re-write history to further your own political agenda, I will personally thank you to avoid historical subject in the future.

Oh, yikes, scathing, huh? The shame. I should just hang my head and walk meekly into obscurity, having been unmasked... And I would if what Mario said was true. But it's not, neither in terms of the things he claims I included in the book or in terms of the things he thinks I overlooked.

I appreciated that he came to me personally, because it opened the door for me to respond. This is what I posted...

Mario,

Thanks for writing. I'm inclined to believe that your response here is based more on what you might think I've written in the book than what is actually in the book. I say that because you seem to think that I've asserted things in the book that I haven't. You seem to think that I disagree with you on things that I don't. Perhaps, also, some of the terminology I use troubles you. Let me clarify a few things.

When I say European and African I don't necessarily define African as black. I use the term more broadly, simply referring to the fact that Carthage was based in North Africa and had considerable support from other North African powers. I surely know that Carthage had Phoenician roots (and that's mentioned plenty in the book), but there is also a clear history of intermarriage (often political) with North African tribes. None of this converts Carthage to black African, but I do believe it mixed into their culture elements that complicated Carthage. After all, when Scipio conquered Carthage his honorific title was Africanus, conquerer of Africa. The ancients were okay with using this terminology. So am I.

You also seem to think that I make some strong case for Hannibal being black. I don't, though. I make a case, as mentioned above, that there was an Africanness in Carthagian culture, but I don't seek for that to replace the Phoenician or Semitic influences. I include them all. My Hannibal is brown skinned, but so are many, many people still living in the region. "Brown" is a wide category.

My book is all about how Hannibal managed his polyglot international and multi-ethnic army. It's about the issues he had dealing with his North African troops, and even more about the difficulties he had securing allies (and mercenaries) among the Iberians, Celts, Gauls and Latins once he's in Italy. I give a lot of detail to all of this. So I'm in complete agreement with your comment that it is "a testament to Hannibal's genius as a military leader that he was able to turn so many different nationalities into an effective fighting force". Absolutely. That's what my novel is about. When you follow it with "It is in this respect that your depiction is largely off the mark" I start to suspect that you haven't read my book at all. If you had you simply would not say that.

I continue to wonder when you write "my biggest problem with your book is that you insist in portraying the Punic Wars as a racial struggle, and for that you should be ashamed of yourself." If I HAD done that I would be ashamed of myself. I'd also be a bit confused, because all of my work (all of my work, sir!) is about looking at the complexities beyond our simplification of racial struggles.

Pride of Carthage is very much a novel about greed, pride, about defending your nation, about the toll of war and the damage it does to both sides. It's about ambition and large personalities and the callousness of fate. It is NOT about a racial struggle. No where in my book does Hannibal hate anybody for their race. He hates them for their nationality, you bet, but not because he has some modern conception of our racial biases. Also, no where in my book do any of the European powers look down on North African peoples for their race. This simply was NOT a dynamic in the book.

Mario, I appreciate the opportunity to respond to you. Next time, though, read the book that you're attacking first. I'm happy to say that a lot of people have. Including a lot of Italians. The Italian language edition of the book did very well in hardback, enough so that my publisher negotiated a nice contract to publish a mass-market paperback version as well.

At the moment I'm engaged in other projects, but it's quite possible I will return to historical subjects in the future. It's been rewarding for me so far, with three award-winning historical novels published in eight languages...

As for my "agenda"... I won't encourage you to read my work. Don't worry about it. That's fine. If you do read it, though, I believe you'll find it's pretty hard to put your finger on what my agenda is. In fact, I have considerably less of an "agenda" than most people. Strangely, I think that befuddles people with agendas somewhat...

Best,

David.

So that's what I said. I wasn't at all sure if I'd get any response. I didn't have to wait long. Mario came back later that day. This is what he said...

David,

I will take the time to read your novel, thoroughly, and I appreciate you taking the time to clear up some points. Having grown up in Italy, and being a product of their school system, albeit an older product, I must confess that I never had much love for Hannibal or Carthage, when I was growing up they were the enemy. Interestingly Italy and Tunisia actually signed a peace treaty formally ending the Punic Wars only about ten years ago as I recall.

I still get the impression however that you are looking at the subject a bit too much from a modern point of view. What the Romans did to Carthage and the Carthaginians may be horrific by our standards, but not terribly unusual in antiquity. The ancient Assyrians were by and far a far more blood thirsty lot than the Romans were, just witness their bas-reliefs depicting impaled prisoners on display in front of cities under siege, not to mention one of Genghis Khan's favorite hobbies was building pyramids with severed heads.

The one comment that I found particularly troubling on your web site was that the Punic Wars were a "struggle between European and African" civilizations; troubling because as you may be aware of from some of the blogs discussing the possible production of a Hannibal movie, a number of extremists from both sides of the color line are rearing their ugly heads.

I frankly have to say that comment leaves a great deal to be desired; a more correct and less inflammatory description of those horrible wars would have called them a gargantuan struggle between the two pre-eminent Mediterranean powers of the time, as both countries were along the Mediterranean coast.

With all of that being said, I must apologize to you for letting my hot Sicilian temper get the best of me, and not considering some of my comments a bit more carefully myself; as I was taught by the Ursuline nuns in my childhood, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

Best regards,

Mario

Right. Okay. Well... When I showed my wife that she responded with disgust. How, she essentially asked, could anyone have the gall to attack you when they admit they haven't read the book (or read it "thoroughly")? How irresponsible! How annoying! How idiotic!

I don't disagree with any of that, but I'm a pretty easy going guy. I'm happy for that significant raising of the civility of the tone, and this is how I responded.

Mario,

Well, thanks for that. It's great, actually, that with just a little bit of dialog we can get a lot closer to understanding each other. Ideally, I'd hope that people taking me to task for things would do so after having read what they're taking me to task for, but moreover I appreciate the tone of your response and your willingness to give the book a shot. Thank you for that.

As for my looking at the conflict from too modern a perspective... Well, that's hard not to do. I am living now, and I am writing for readers living now, and those readers are sifting through the material from a modern perspective. I surely try to present things in context, but that's only ever going to be an attempt. I'll never get it exactly right. Nobody else will either.

I know the ancient world was a bloody place. My book never suggests otherwise, or gives any one side a higher measure of barbarity. All the salient plot points (at least in terms of the events of the war) I gathered from the ancient sources. Within that, there are plenty of instances of Roman treachery (as in instances when they violated their own conceptions of honor). There are plenty of instances of Carthaginian cruelty as well, and often Hannibal's success springs from his doing things that the Romans simply would not have considered accepted battle tactics. It's all in the book.

I don't imagine you'll love every aspect of it. At times you may disagree wholeheartedly with me. At other times you may just be skeptical. At others you may roll your eyes. But I think most of the time you'll find a good deal of balanced detail in the book. I've no doubt, having read your response to my response, that you will find things of worth in the book.

As for that line about the Punic Wars being a "struggle between European and African powers..." You make a good point. When I wrote that I defined both those categories in ways both more liberal and more specific than I imagine most readers will take them. By that I mean that statement doesn't equal the contemporary racial frictions that are part of our more recent history. I think people that read the book understand that, but the statement has to work for people that have not read the book also. With that in mind I think a revision is in order.

How about if I use some of your words and some of mine...

"a titanic clash of the two pre-eminent Mediterranean powers of the time".

That sounds good to me. I'll edit the original post.

I do think there are ways that the war and its results were shaped by (and then further shaped) the fates of European and African cultures, but I admit that's a much more subtle and complicated matter than our modern rhetoric acknowledges. It can't be explained in a sentence, that's for sure.

Oh, and I agree that the "debates" around whom should be cast in a Hannibal movie often show people at their worst. Very little of the strident arguments people have are really based on those distant historical times. Most of it is about our contemporary hangups, and it can get pretty ugly to listen to. In most cases, I find arguments on both sides based on limited and selective information - so limited and selective, in fact, that it hardly counts as information.

For my part, I've never offered a casting choice, except to say I'd hope they would find an actor that really had the gravitas to embody such a complicated character. Actually, I've mentioned the Japanese actor Ken Watanabe (from The Last Samurai) - not because I think he should be cast, but because he's the TYPE of actor they should be looking for, one that can contain the intelligence and cruelty, vision and perseverance and suffering of a figure like Hannibal. It's an amazing conflict that could merit an amazing film. I doubt we're going to get one, though.

Anyway, Mario, I do appreciate having this back and forth with you. It's easy to hot under the collar and shout at each other. It's a lot more substantive to talk things through a bit. Glad we got to do that.

Best,

David.

ps - Do you still read Italian? There is that Italian version of the book (Annibale), published by Piemme, if you're interested... The paperback version, by the way, went out with a first printing of 45,000. Which, ironically, is the largest first printing I've had anywhere...

I didn't get a response from this post, but that's alright. What do you think? Am I too nice? Too amenable? Sometimes I feel that way, but it's true to my nature. (My wife, on the other hand... She's got a temper. Man, you should have heard the way she tore into the gardeners the other day for blowing dust on the laundry...)

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13 Comments:

Blogger ReggieH said...

Man, you are a saint!:) Great responses to this guy. And I agree about Watanabe: it would take someone with his presence to do the character justice

10:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, this gave me an early morning chortle! A couple of points though - Firstly he is an idiot and your calm response made him expose himself more and more.
Secondly I think it is great that books encourage debate. For instance I think Dan Brown's books are very average thrillers, written in a very average way, that managed to hit on a hot button subject. Other people think they are the best books ever written. So now we can discuss that and isn't it great to be discussing a book rather then Paris Hilton, Love island, celebrity etc etc?
Nick

5:54 AM  
Blogger Laughton & Patricia Johnston said...

David, I admire your cool response, just the right thing. I would either have responded in kind or seethed for days, neither approach achieving anything. Which reminds me of a response of some famous musical figure who replied to an ignorant critic with 'I am sitting in the smallest room in the house with your review in front of me. Shortly, it will be behind me'.
Sounds as if you have a scary wife! But I am sure her talent can be very useful sometimes.
Laughton.

6:08 AM  
Blogger Dirk said...

You were pretty nice. As soon as he admitted he hadn't really read the book I would have ripped him a new one.

(I have to admit, I didn't finish this book either. I just couldn't get into it. I think I got about 50 pages or so into it when I moved on to something else. Nothing really hooked me. Maybe I'll give it another try further down the road.)

9:24 AM  
Blogger paranoyd said...

Generally, we all know it's best to NOT answer your critics unless absolutely necessary; but if you are forced to for some reason (like this gentleman's not-informed ranting), you did it the best possible way - you know what they say, kill them with kindness.

And of COURSE your wife is scary, she's Irish! Those are some awesomely strong and willful women - you got a good one.

7:37 PM  
Anonymous dance said...

As a historian, let me apologize that the profession does tend to encourage people to critique things they haven't read. Nevertheless, Mario still ought to know better.

I'd say it's worth responding with reason as long as you have the energy. My private rule is not to repeat myself more than once--but there was no repetition in that exchange, the discussion was clearly moving forward. Much preferable to the more common vitriol-fest.

10:12 AM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Hi All,

I've been away at a Conference in Minnesota and have found little time to check in here. Thanks for the supportive comments, though.

Dirk,

Thanks for trying the book the first time. It's not for everyone, but I will say I believe it's the type of book that builds as you go. It's not always easy to have folks stick with a book that's getting its momentum up slowly, but that's the way it needed to be written for me. If you've got the time do try it again later. It might grow on you.

Paranoyd,

Yeah, Gudrun does have a temper. It's a SCOTTISH temper, though. I don't know how that compares to Irish...

In general, I'm glad the whole reasoned, respectful tone works for you. It's natural to me, but I find it's not so much a part of our popular culture anymore. I wish it were; we'd all learn more from each other.

11:07 AM  
Blogger James McLauchlan Johnston said...

I think you did the right thing - although you obviously, as always, took your time to make sure you gave a reasoned, balanced response; I'm not sure I would have, I'd have probably written a hasty like-for-like rant - but the most pertinent issue is the fact he hadn't read the book.

As a some time reviewer I always read the book, watch the movie, listen to the album, eat the dish etc.

The internet/blogging/email has allowed people to post hasty and uninformed (and in this digital age, usually borrowed) viewpoints without due consideration.

Login, type and send!

It's amazing you used your precious time to dialogue with him. But would you had you known he hadn't read it? I doubt it. What would be the point? Unfortunately people like him will make it harder for readers/interested parties to talk to people like you (authors).

6:57 PM  
Blogger paranoyd said...

Yes! Scottish! (Wait, what did I say?)

My ex-wife was Irish and Polish - she drank herself stupid and then started fights with me.

Notice the word "ex".

But yes, I meant Scottish, of course, as you have mentioned her a few times and I just had a brain block.

7:07 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Jamie,

Hi ya. I think I would have taken the time to communicate with Mario even if I'd KNOWN that he hadn't read the book. Actually, I did know he hadn't read the book. That's kinda obvious based on his comments. I didn't know how he'd respond, and if the response wasn't good that would've ended my involvement. But if the result of the exchange is that he does give my work a shot and doesn't repeat the performance to somebody else... well, that's a success.

(By the way, Jamie, are you a Neil Gaiman fan? I just met him at a conference and enjoyed several hours hanging out with him. Very good guy.)

Paranoyd, I'm glad to say that my wife's temper doesn't have to do with drinking. Honestly, it rises for completely valid reasons. Most of the time...

11:08 AM  
Blogger a cat of impossible colour said...

I admire your cool, reasoned response to this hotheaded reader (or rather, non-reader). I also admire how open and responsive you are in your blog posts and your replies to comments. Writing a blog (and writing a book) is to some extent akin to hanging a sign on your back saying 'Criticise Me', and it is a real gift to be able to deal with that criticism gracefully and with humour.

12:45 AM  
Blogger a cat of impossible colour said...

Oops, sorry, no intention to remain anonymous there - my name is Andrea.

12:46 AM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Hi Andrea (the cat of impossible colour),

Thanks for visiting. I do think criticism comes with the writing/blogging territory. I've read, honestly, "professional" reviews of my books in newspapers where they made mistakes enough to make me question whether they'd really read the book. But those are few, and it's just part of it. Open your mouth to speak and every now and then a bug will fly in...

Sometimes they're nice to chew on.

7:59 PM  

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