“Everyone reads pulp.” Arjen Ribbens, for example, started his piece on Saturday 28 May in the ‘Everyone reads’ section, in which various authors each week seek an explanation for the success of the leaders of De Bestseller 60. After the thriller Road Trip by Suzanne Vermeer by Judith Eiselin was published a week earlier, had been called an ‘astoundingly weak book’, Ribbens now took aim at Free Birds by Ilya Gort.
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Gort, wrote Ribbens, “strings together the platitudes” and “grosses in ridiculous story twists.” About Gort himself, Ribbens added in brackets: ’71, alpinopet, forked beard with two corkscrew-shaped strands’.
A week later Ilya Gort hit back. On page 15 of the Economy section of Saturday 4 June, it seemed he wrote a column. At the top a photo of Gort, exactly as columnists from NRC are in the photo: with their arms folded, angled towards the camera. Only small print betrayed that it was an advertisement, in the form of an ‘open letter to Arjen Ribbens’.
“I am Ilja Gort and I write novels that are appreciated by many people,” he began. „According to your review […] these novels are not worth pulp and reading.” That is something Ribbens thinks, wrote Gort. „What I do have a problem with is that you […] insults the lion’s share of reading Netherlands in an arrogant way.” Gort denounces the ‘nosing down on books that do not immediately have the ambition to win the PC Hooft Prize’ and writes: ‘Let people read what they want, even if it is Pinkeltje’. At the bottom of the letter is an image of the offending book with the balls that NRC normally places with reviews (but which are missing in the ‘Everyone reads’ section): five pieces.
‘No PR stunt’
The advertisement was a surprise to the editors of NRC. That the newspaper had approved this! Should reviewers be allowed to do this? Can this also happen to columnists or ‘normal’ editors? And is it true that only people who throw a lot of money at it can respond to a reviewer?
Gort also placed his ad that Saturday on social media, including Twitter and LinkedIn, with the following: „Costs a few cents, but then you also have something. And it just had to be said.”
Though he swore it was “not a PR stunt,” it turned out to be just that. Among his posts appeared thousands of hearts and thumbs up, and hundreds of almost exclusively positive reactions. “She’ll learn that!”; “Just carry on as you are!”; “A response at a high level! Cheers!”
Also read the review of Ilja Gort’s book: ‘a feather-light summer book that deals in ridiculous plot twists’
In principle, the editorial team and the advertising department are strictly separated and the editors do not interfere with advertising. But, says René Moerland, editor-in-chief of NRC: “In extreme cases, if limits are crossed, we can refuse them.” The bar for this is high, he says. In this case he saw no reason to reject Gort’s advertisement. The editors felt that the format was not misleading for readers, it was clear that it was an advertisement.
Moerland did, however, have contact with Ribbens beforehand: he wanted to warn the author about the open letter and ask what he felt about it. Ribbens agrees. “He asked if I could live with it. Then I said: we don’t live in Russia. If you can hand out, you should also be able to collect.”
That’s how Moerland sees it too. Columnists and critics take part in the public debate. “If you make judgments, you will also receive criticism yourself.” An ad aimed at a reporter, such as an investigative journalist, would be more likely to be rejected by the editors. “Because personal judgment plays no role in editorial reporting.”
Gort’s reply was therefore placed, but not on the Opinion pages, as was intended, but in the Economy section. Chief of Opinion Peter Vermaas explains why: “There is an agreement that anything that resembles an opinion piece, a letter or a petition may not appear as an advertisement in the Opinion Annex. You want to prevent us from rejecting an opinion piece and then buying an advertisement in the section.”
In retrospect, says René Moerland, you can say that the form of Gort’s letter may have been misleading, given the resemblance to a column. “The layout should be distinctly different. You may wonder whether we have applied that rule strictly enough.”
Ribbens himself was not aware of all the fuss: he is not on Twitter or LinkedIn. “I haven’t read it. My daughters do.” Ribbens wrote Gort an e-mail that he found the advertisement ‘witty’ and that their worlds do not touch. He got no answer.
The question remains whether only people who pull the wallet can voice their grievances against a review. No, says Vermaas of the Opinion Editors. A letter to the editor was also an option. And it’s free.
“We do not treat letters about reviews differently from other letters,” says Vermaas. “If Gort had sent us this text as a letter to the editor, we would have probably just placed it in an adapted form, less focused on the man. Then he could have saved himself the money.”
Ilya Gort doubted whether his letter would be posted, he says, and did not want to wait. “I wanted to get rid of my egg.”
Initially he had the thought: maybe Ribbens is right. “I thought, perhaps I am indeed a jerk. But when I picked up my book and leafed through it, I thought: that man is wrong. Besides, it was cheating, played on the man. And he dismissed my readers as people for whom the slightest brain activity was taboo. That went wrong with me. I thought: we are going to do something about that.”
He took the bill for granted. He looked at NRC’s ‘menu’ and saw what the advertisement should cost: 20,000 euros. “For two or three seconds I thought, fuck. I have to sell a lot of bottles and booklets for that.” (Gort is also in the wine.) When the confirmation came in, he was even more shocked. “I saw a 3 and a 6 and all zeros. I thought: NRC is pissing me off and now I’m going to make them rich too!” But it turned out to be only two zeros: 3,600 euros. “A huge windfall”, Gort observes. It turns out that culture and books – just like charities – receive a discount in some cases. Gort: “That’s neat from NRC.”
Barbara Rijlaarsdam A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of June 18, 2022