Pagans expresses outrage and disappointment over “book review”

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ASHEVILLE, North Carolina – An article published by The Independent on January 12, and presented as a “book review” written by Ceri Radford has drawn considerable criticism and anger from the Pagan community.

Radford’s review consisted of her cataloging her week-long experiences allegedly following some of the suggestions in the book, The Modern Witch’s Guide to Happiness by Luna Bailey.

Statements like these, which are throughout Radford’s article drew considerable ire:

Right. This witching business. One of the things I need, along with a suspension of belief in the scientific underpinnings of the universe, is an altar. Not to sacrifice a goat upon – no, this book is whiter than a student union snowflake – but to claim a space for “creativity, spiritual growth and guidance”.

Rediscovering nature, reclaiming the sexist trope of the witch as a symbol of female empowerment, switching off from the constant thrum of social media and consumerism: what’s not to like?

The answer, of course, is that however benign or even beneficial the rituals, it’s all built on a wobbling base of bats***. No matter how many spells we cast to ask the universe for help, the universe isn’t listening.

This excerpt from 3 Pagans and a Cat writer, Gwyn, reflects the general responses to the article that virtually littered the blogosphere and social media soon after the article was published:

“Yeah, no. In case there is any doubt in anyone’s mind, Ceri Radford did not spend a week becoming a witch. She didn’t even come close to understanding Witches beyond the book she perused or indeed how Witches use magick. How do I know this? Because in the end, she aligned Witches with people who are ‘anti-vaxxers’, ‘climate change deniers’ and other troublesome things such as ‘flat earthers.’  She made assumptions based on the fact that as Witches we use crystals, herbs, create altars and sacred space, practice divination, ritual and spellcraft —  therefore we must ‘shun science.’ “

Nearly every blog and article that criticized Radford’s article pointed out that if she had applied these same tactics in an article or book review that was based in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, or any other mainstream religion, the backlash would’ve been such that she would likely still be laid out.

Yesterday’s editorial response The Independent on The Wild Hunt pointed out many similar concerns.

Complaints to  The Independent about Radford’s article received the following message:

Thank you for your recent email regarding an article published in The Independent headlined “I spent a week becoming a witch and the results were worrying”:

I should first explain that upon receipt of a complaint, the concerns raised are reviewed with reference to The Independent’s own Code of Conduct, which you can read here. In addition, while The Independent is not a member of the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), we also have regard to the terms of the Editors’ Code of Practice, which is a set of standards which is used industry wide.

We have received a number of complaints, airing the same concerns, about this matter. This response is being sent to everyone who has been in touch; we always welcome feedback on our articles, whether that be positive or negative.

It should first be emphasised that the article subject to your complaint was, in essence, a review of a book. “The Modern Witch’s Guide to Happiness” purports to provide information on “everything you need to know to become a modern witch, from working with tarot cards and healing crystals, to taking direction from the stars”. This synopsis, claims that the book will “teach you how to harness the power of the natural world, dispel toxic energy and develop your own psychic ability to find happiness”.

It is important that a distinction be drawn between the accuracy of this text, and our article. The Independent is responsible only for taking care over the accuracy of our editorial content. Any complaint which you might have with the suggestions and practices promoted in the book should be directed towards its author.

Our article did not purport to be a detailed analysis of an entire community, rather, it was clearly presented as one person’s account of adopting the recommendations set out in a single book, over the course of a week.

I acknowledge that many disagree strongly with the journalist’s account of experience of putting the book’s recommendations into practice. I have, of course, noted the explanations you have provided as to why the reporter has misunderstood the practice of witchcraft, and the wider community. However, you will not be in a position to dispute the writer’s own personal experiences, or the impression which she was left with during the week. I have not concluded that the reporting of these claims represent a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article, or a failure to distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact, such as might require correction.

While I do not consider that the article requires correction or amendment, for the reasons I have explained above, I nevertheless wish to thank you for taking the time to raise your concerns to the editorial team; we always welcome the opportunity to engage with our readers. If anything in my response is unclear, please do not hesitate to get back in touch.

Kind regards,

Madeline Palacz
Editorial Compliance Manager

Others have suggested the article should be ignored because giving it additional attention expands the article’s reach.

Still others like Aine Llewellyn were seeking to strike a balance:

“I understand the anger that came out of the Independent article. It really would be major, serious news if someone wrote an article like that about a mainstream religion. And while I was deeply discomforted by some of the takes I saw coming from the community, I ultimately decided that essentially wagging my finger at other Pagans and witches wouldn’t be the right choice … Even if the original response from Twitter left me unpleasantly shocked, I think our community has made good content out of the awful sludge we were given. All of our voices contributing to this discussion help shape us for the future.”

Peg Aloi, aka The Media Witch on her website, The Witching Hour, focused on the impact the internet has had not only on the types of media and books being published and popularized but on how it has minimized and misconstrued the actual practice of Witchcraft:

“The current explosion of witchcraft on social media paints a rather misleading picture of the depth, complexity and knowledge underpinning a spiritual movement that’s been reinventing itself since the 1960s… And now we find that contemporary witchcraft, as it is now understood by the general public via social media’s portrayals, is little more than a hobby, barely even a craft anymore. Witchcraft is a mode of expression. It’s an aesthetic. It’s fashion. It’s political. It’s self care. It’s activism.

Aloi adds,

Witchcraft is taking photos of our cool-looking altars (or the sparkly sarongs we’re packing to bring to Burning Man, or the tarot card we just laid down next to our morning coffee), and posting them on our timelines.

Witchcraft, that most spectacular of spiritual pursuits, has become mere spectacle, devoid of ritual, devoid of magic, devoid of spiritual intent.

And while I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with adopting some of witchcraft’s imagery or tropes to try and enhance whatever you’re doing, those things you’re doing, well, they’re not witchcraft. Sorry, but no.”

Yet another issue The Independent article brought up is one TWH reported on recently, the trend of using ghostwriters and contract writers by small and virtually unknown publishing imprints.

It is not clear if this is the case with the book that Radford reviewed. However, consistent with previous ghost/contract writers, the author, Luna Bailey, has no social media accounts or websites. [Though a search on Instagram did turn up a rather marvelous amount of accounts belonging to dogs named Luna, none of which apparently write.]

Luna Bailey was found on Google Books and clearly lists Bailey as ghost-writing on other books:

The publisher, Michael O’Mara Books, is real enough and describes itself as specializing “in creative and inspired adult non-fiction. Independent, commercial and always on-trend, we are passionate about our books and publish an exciting and varied list – from history and popular science to language; sport and biography to puzzles; gift and humour to craft – that reaches readers across the world.”

Michael O’Mara Books have been around since 1985, and started out as a “mom and pop” business, and remains an independent publisher according to their website. They also have two other imprints, LOM Art, and Buster Books.

The book that spawned the review by Radford and all the outrage is listed on the publisher’s website under the category of “Lifestyle,” along with a number of other “How to” books that include repairing everything to thinking like Stephen Hawking.

Additionally, two days ago a petition was started on Change.org to make The Independent address the article, though the petition does specify what kind of redress it seeks. It currently has over 2500 signatures.

This article is disrespectful, discriminatory towards the witchcraft community and subsequently the wider pagan community. It is poorly researched, relying on personal assumptions and opinions. An article of this nature is not only damaging to the publication, but detrimental to a recognised spiritual and / or religious minority group.

It’s important to recognise that journalism and the media isn’t always going to present pieces that are appreciated by readers and by its nature something that can divide people. However the discrimination and dismissal of religious and / or spiritual beliefs under the guise of a book review and personal challenge is a step too far. 

Aloi may have summed things up rather well in a comment on a public post on Facebook, “True there is much to be outraged about. But first comes public ridicule (which we only recently evolved out of as a movement) and next, in this climate, comes, possibly, a return to prejudice and persecution. We as witches should be doing what we can to those who are in danger in this racist, sexist regime roiling around us.”