How to Respond to Literary Criticism: or, The One Minute Trial by Combat Rule

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Author's Note:
Warning for minor ritualised violence and bad haircuts.

In a world in which the response to taking offence at something is to challenge the offender to a one-minute trial by combat, it can be hazardous working in publishing. Be careful what you say!

We’re wandering back through the building to collect our things; the offices are almost empty now, people going home early on Friday evening. I’m telling Elise about a book that’s just coming out, published by us; it’s terrible, in my opinion. Poorly written, with one-dimensional characters and more holes in the plot than an old lace shawl. “And worst of all? This guy’s writing is full of clichés. Really, it’s like he can’t go more than a paragraph without using one. His brain must be just this mess of stereotypes and clichés and absolutely no actual thinking!”

Elise laughs as we turn into our little open-plan office, something we share with a couple of other lowly peons on the publishing ladder and where we spend most of our time reading the slush pile and doing small jobs for our more senior colleagues. Standing in the middle of the floor is a man just on the plump side of fit and sporting a dreadful approximation of a Legolas haircut.

“My book is good!” he shouts, his face red with temper. “I challenge you to trial by combat!”

Elise frowns, worried, but I square my shoulders. What’s the point in having an opinion if you won’t defend it when you’re challenged? “You’ll bear witness, right?” I say to her.

“Sure. Why is he- Why are you here? Everyone’s gone home?” she asks the writer.

“I was picking up my advance copy,” he says stiffly. “I have a reading tonight at The George.”

“That’s right, it’s the writing group in the back room there tonight, isn’t it?” Elise says cheerfully. “I hear they give good critique. Of course, it’s usually before a work is in print, but…” she shrugs, perches herself on the edge of a desk and fishes her phone out of her pocket. With deft fingers, she unlocks it and starts the video recording. “Hi, I’m Elise McNamara, it’s five twenty-seven on the eighth of September twenty-seventeen, and I’m recording a one minute trial by combat.” She turns her phone to face us.

Sulkily, the man says, “My name is Will Smith and my writing has been insulted!”

I sigh. “My name is Sarah Gregg and his writing is terrible. I consent to abide by the outcome of the one minute trial by combat.”

There’s a pause, and Elise clears her throat. Will flushes even more – I’m not sure how that’s possible at this point, but there you go – and mumbles his consent too. Elise smiles brightly. “Right, you have one minute starting from… now!” She keeps an eye on her watch as Will blusters forward and realises he doesn’t actually have any idea what he’s doing. I advance, he takes another step, and clumsily I grab the lapels of his tweed jacket and yank him, dropping back and down as I go. It’s nominally a judo throw, but the last time I did judo I was in high school and I was only a beginner then. But it works, and Will goes flying over my head and lands awkwardly.

I climb to my feet – I’m not fast, by any means – and wait while he catches his breath and drags himself upright. He lumbers forward again, jabs at my face with a loose fist, and I grab his arm and jerk him off-balance, kicking the back of his knee with my heel, and he drops again.

“Time!” Elise calls. “By the rules of the one minute trial by combat, I declare Sarah the winner. Will, your writing is terrible.”

Will gets up again and glowers at us both. He straightens his jacket and attempts a sneer – fails – and throws his book at my head. For once, I catch it, and I hold it by one cover and rip out a few pages. “Terrible!” I say, and throw it back. He doesn’t catch it, and it bounces off his chest and drops to the floor. With a snarl, and so red-faced I’m a little worried he’s going to have a stroke, he scoops it up and storms out.

We stand there for a moment, listening to his footsteps thump down the corridor, then Elise collapses into giggles and I join her. “Oh my god!” she wheezes, turning the recording off. “Did you see his face?”

I shake my head. “Wow, he really needs to learn how to take things less personally.”


We take a few minutes to compose ourselves while Elise uploads the video to the local trial by combat archive over the office wi-fi before we finally grab our jackets and handbags and head out of the office.

“So, fancy a bite to eat and a drink?” Elise says, linking her arm with mine as we go down the steps at the front of the building into the square.

“Sure,” I say, but then there’s a shout.

“There she is! She destroyed my property! I challenge her to trial by combat!”

It’s Will again, standing in the local trial by combat rink that’s in the square; it’s pretty much a boxing rink, only the ropes really are just ropes and the padding on the corner posts always has bird shit on it from the pigeons. The arbiter, a bored, middle-aged woman with short brown hair, waves me over.

There’s a small crowd gathering, mostly bored teenagers and a few office workers on their way home from work. I get to the edge of the rink and take a deep breath. “I call you liar! Oath-breaker! Sore loser! Bad writer! We have already settled the matter with trial by combat and I won! He’s a bad loser with a bad attitude and a bad haircut!”

The crowd mutters. Elise fishes her phone out and plays the video for the arbiter, who shakes her head as the video ends.

“In the matter of property destruction, I find the challenger gave the property to the defendant and therefore cannot challenge over that matter. But in the matter of the insult over haircut – even though I agree it is a terrible haircut – I judge the matter to be settled by a one minute trial by combat.”

I sigh, hand off my jacket and handbag to Elise and climb into the rink.

It is a terrible haircut.

- - - -

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About ellenscult

Dog mum, knitter, writer of strange things.


  1. That was awesome. We NEED this rule. Lol

  2. *helpless giggles*

  3. So funny!

  4. THIS IS A FANTASTIC IDEA. I would read a whole novel with something like this.

  5. I deeply desire to live in this world. Seriously. Some people, gah, I’d feel so much better after a one minute trial by combat. Great job.

  6. You would be KICKASS! It would be a better world, I think, but going shopping would take five times as long. Thank you!

  7. LMAO. This. There needs to be this in RL. A few simple rules, nobody exempt. Take your lumps and leave it in the ring.

  8. This is a fabulous idea. Way more sensible than duels to the death, too.

  9. greywolfthewanderer

    holy crap do we ever need this rule IRL!! *very* cool!

  10. I love this story and concept. I giggle very time I read it.

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