Love the One You’re With: Book Review Ethics Re-examined, Part Two

April 23rd, 2009

Before writing this post, I took the time to read over Garth Risk Hallberg's long and excellent post on The Millions about the future of book coverage. I was intrigued by his penultimate paragraph:

"Finally, no reimagining of the NYTBR will succeed without more rigorous attention to the quality of the writing. With its privileging of print, the NYTBR has tended to assign books to authors rather than to critics; if the NBCC is to be believed, however, there's now a great untapped pool of the latter out there, just waiting for the next call to arms."

I think that this brief excerpt is quite important to my previous post, but let me recap that post for just a moment before I explain why I think Risk Hallberg's words are so important. When I left off, I was talking about the ethical divide between British and American book critics, one that I've heard held up by my esteemed colleague Michael Dirda, who has said in the past that The Washington Post Book World does not assign reviews to to people who have so much as interviewed an author, let alone someone who has developed a friendship with said author. (One of his fellow panelists at the time, novelist Katharine Weber, said that no such rule was in place at Publishers Weekly — but I daresay that's because PW's "industry standard" reviews are almost all published without bylines.)

Now, like everyone else, I've noticed that the standalones (I would say this is now singular, but remember: Book World does continue to exist online!) have assigned more and more reviews to "authors" rather than to "critics." Hmmm. Who has a bigger axe to grind with another author — his or her fellow author, who (as often as not) has written a similar and/or competing book? Or a professional critic, whose standards and goals are much different? 

I don't think that we need to throw the author out with the critical bathwater; there's certainly a place for reviews written by authors — many of whom are well-established critics, too. Author bylines can draw more eyeballs, and it can be much more interesting to read a review by an author and/or expert. 

Yet since many authors are also critics…many critics are also authors! There actually is a vast, untapped pool of talent out there; the only mistake is that it's not all within the NBCC corral (full disclosure: I am a dues-paying member of the NBCC). Several of the best-published authors I know who also write book reviews have either let their NBCC membership lapse, or have never joined, despite penning reviews for top publications, both print and online. 

If we don't have to "mind the gap" between authors reviewing other authors' work, why should we have to do so as critics reviewing authors' work? Why can't we simply all be grownups and understand that criticism does not by its nature mean that ad hominem attacks will follow? I've written before about critical and/or negative reviews I've crafted that, once published, resulted in truly thoughtful and sometimes even grateful responses from authors. I mention those critical reviews so that you will understand I don't believe that reviews written by critics who know the author will always result in soft-shoe twaddle, either.

I don't have all the answers, and there are many bones to be picked with the things I've said here. However, I do believe that it's been far too long since we looked at this issue, and it has become crucial that we do look at it carefully in our new media universe.

Next: A Modest Proposal


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