I grew up too close and yet too far from Manhattan: Too far to actually visit regularly, but too close to avoid knowing what I was missing. Each time I did get a teenaged trek into "The City," it was too little of what I longed for. Heading back home on a dingy MetroNorth train meant always leaving too early (trains are scarce after 11 p.m.) and incurring depression as I re-entered a town without a bookstore (this was long before there was a B&N in every strip mall, kiddies; "Barnes & Noble" meant the Fifth Avenue store, and it was Mecca).
But the Metro-NYC network affiliates reached our Hudson Valley home, and so did other kinds of media. I am just old enough to remember SPY Magazine's tongue-in-chic heyday, and how its po-mo schtick features seemed hip beyond belief (come to think of it, Elvis Costello is as mired in his look from that time period as founding SPY editor Graydon Carter is in his).
One of those was the cheeky "Logrolling in Our Time," which provided examples of authors giving blurbs to each other, either obsequiously, suspiciously, or both. While jacket blurbs are supposed to come from authors acting as disinterested peers, let's face it: Publishing is a relationship game. I haven't even published a piece of fiction, yet I've had a few famous authors tell me that they admire my writing so much that they'd be happy to give me a blurb if I ever do. That isn't because they were trying to curry favor or a good review (most of these encounters had nothing to do with reviews). Giving a blurb is something that authors can do for people, and in an industry that doesn't involve swag suites at every event or producer gigs, an honest and freely given blurb for a book seems rather innocent.
Yes, yes, yes: Some blurbs are smarmy and dishonest. Further discussion of those another time. My point today is that logrolling qua logrolling isn't always a terrible thing. For example, sometimes the only way an unknown writer can get his work noticed is to have a blurb from a very famous writer on it, garnered from time in an MFA workshop or from having a manuscript passed along via a friend of the very famous writer's. My point today is that few among us can afford to avoid all networking, favors, and conflicts of interest. We try to avoid the big ones, but honestly: If Richard Russo sincerely recommended your novel to a book critic (as he did recommend one of his MFA student's to me, during an interview), would you say "Oh, no, please, book critic, do not read my work. It is tainted for you because of my prior relationship with Russo. I only want readers who come to my work without such brainwashing."
HAAAAAAhahahahaha. Hee, hee, hee. Ooooo, that's a good one.
What would be wrong, and why "Logrolling in our Time" was so funny, is if you became as famous as Russo, and the two of you just started giving lovely, vapid compliments to each other's books as a kind of insider-trading scheme. Who cares if the book is good, bad, or indifferent? We'll push its sales no matter what! Besides, what fools those reading mortals be; they have no idea whether or book is good, or not.
No one wants that. No one wants to have writers giving empty praise to their cronies, and that's why for many years in the United States, book critics adhered to a policy of not reviewing books written by their friends, relatives, and colleagues.
I say "in the United States" because in the United Kingdom, the literary world is too small for such standards. If British authors waited for someone they don't know to write a review, they wouldn't get any reviews. We all know about the famous Amis (see what I did there? Of course, I'm the woman who gave one child the middle name "Grace Kelly" inadvertently, because I was trying to get my maiden name of "Kelly" in there)-versus-Barnes review wars — but those were a matter of ad hominem attacks coming into reviews, rather than stemming from them. Most of the time, writers across the pond get a bad review from someone they know professionally and/or personally — and just keep going.
Next: Love the One You're With: Book Review Ethics Re-examined, Part Two