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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Question of Ethics Shouldn't Be Dismissed

The New York Sun has a piece titled The Scorn of the Literary Blogger that is itself, short-sighted at best in its analysis of the strengths of newspaper reviews compared to the shortcomings of “blog” reviews.

The reason I say shortsighted is that the author has declared, “People who write about books on the Internet, and they are surprisingly numerous, do not call themselves reviewers, but bloggers.” Well, I don’t. Not when I review in Spinetingler. And when Reviewing The Evidence was named a top blog the staff openly declared on DorothyL that they are not a blog, though they’d take the publicity. Considering the reviewing team over there includes an experienced journalist (which Spinetingler does as well) I can imagine some annoyance at the gross generalization that just because a review appears online it is not insightful and cannot be professional.

However, there is something else about the article that I do find interesting, and that is the assertion that it is only the “bloggers” who see conspiracy theories in the business, and Mr. Kirsch’s assessment of what the purpose of a review is.

The National Book Critics Circle did an extensive survey, which forms the background here.

“Yet in the face of the constant shrinkage of newspaper book coverage — as inexorable, it seems, as the melting of the glaciers — the literary world still makes time to fight over some very minor "ethical" questions. "Should a book review editor assign a book on subject A to a reviewer who has also written a book on subject A?" the NBCC survey asked. "Should authors who publish with a particular house be permitted to review other books published by that house?" I can't think of a working editor or journalist who would say no to either question. What's more, such questions demonstrate a basically flawed understanding of what book reviews are for….

“Questions like those raised by the NBCC survey envision the book review as a transaction between author and reviewer, rather than between reviewer and reader. To be obsessed with potential bias or conflict of interest on the book reviewer's part is to imagine the reviewer as a judge, who is obligated to provide every author with his or her day in court. But that judicial standard is impossible, because there is no such thing as an objective judgment of a work of literature; aesthetic judgment is by definition personal and opinionated. Nor would a perfectly objective book review even be desirable. The whole point of a review is to set one mind against another, and see what sparks fly. If the reviewer lacks an individual point of view, or struggles to repress it, there can be no intellectual friction, and therefore no interest or drama.”

The inference I take from this is that reviews should be an opinionated assessment of the work based on taste, and not an objective analysis. I disagree, at least in part.

Let’s go to the one statement I do agree with, that a review is a transaction between reviewer and reader. It is the job of the reviewer to give the reader enough information to decide if they want to read the book. That has nothing to do with the reviewer’s opinion and everything to do with the merits of the book itself.

For example, hand me a cozy, amateur sleuth book and you are not likely to get a passionate endorsement, the way I would laud an excellent police procedural, for example. Why? Because I am more passionate about one subgenre than the other. But what does that have to do with the person reading my reviews? Quite possibly, nothing. To trash a book because it fails to be what appeals to me does not mean it won’t appeal to someone else. A fair assessment evaluates the strength of the writing, the execution of the plot, the development of the characters and tries to assess the overall work against its own genre. It would be ludicrous to try to compare Faulkner to Evanovich.

I actually make a point of trying to get books that fit the interests of the reviewers into their hands. The reason is that I feel they understand the subgenre, have done a wider range of reading within it and can better assess the book for the potential readership of the title. Me? Give me a cat mystery and I’m likely to trounce it for being wholly unbelievable. Of course, believability isn’t the point of a cat mystery, so what good is the review to people who have interest in those books? It’s of no use to anyone at all, least of all me, who had to spend personal time reading a book that I have no interest in.

There is something else in the article that bugged me. The specific question: "Should authors who publish with a particular house be permitted to review other books published by that house?"

Just because reviews are meant for readers, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t ethical questions to consider. I, for one, do not believe that any reviewer should belong to an authors’ organization on the basis of reviewing. Now, opinions will differ on this, and I respect the rights of others to see it differently. However, this is how I see it: I see it as a serious question of ethics.

The truth is, it can be very difficult to assess your peers. Anyone who tells you otherwise has a heart of stone or is lying. This is something you must learn to deal with, and not every reviewer gets to the point where they can do an honest and fair assessment, without considering the repercussions.

A recent example turned up in a discussion I had with a reviewer who decided not to review a book they didn’t enjoy. It was beyond not enjoying. They didn’t feel the book was well written, didn’t like the story at all. However, the praise has been pretty much universal for the book, but they had the liberty of not reviewing it and decided they wouldn’t. One thing that came up in the discussion was the lavish praise through blurbs and reviews. I looked through the names. About 90% of them I could connect to the author in some capacity – they share an agent, an editor, a publisher in one country or another...

I would have to be an idiot for it not to cross my mind that some of the people may have given the book an endorsement because they were asked to as a favour for an editor, agent, etc. I mean, we have some authors openly declaring that they’ll blurb anyone, even if they haven’t read the book, and others saying they’ll always find something positive to say. Of course it calls into question the credibility of the blurbs. Don’t believe me? Read Barry Eisler’s candid take on it, and JA Konrath’s views for yourself.

This connects right over to reviewing, because we do have peer reviews, for one thing. And for another, there are a lot of reviewers who are aspiring authors. Ask yourself honestly, considering what two well-known authors have said about blurbing, is an author reviewing another author from the same publisher going to have the same credibility as a reviewer who isn’t an author?

We live in the age of skepticism, and that has nothing to do with blogs. That has everything to do with the disillusionment society, in general, has gone through. It used to be that you believed in the church and the government and didn’t question them. Times have changed, a lot. Now, we no longer hand respect over to governments. Watergate, anyone? We no longer hand respect over to anyone easily. If we are suspicious of the political leaders we elect, it stands to reason people will be more suspicious of everything. I know journalists, which is why I don’t blindly trust everything I read. If I’m skeptical of those spinning the hard news, of course I’ll be skeptical about those writing opinion pieces. One of the big problems in this country is that the newspapers have known political associations. So much for journalistic integrity. I watch the spin. One of the best shows we ever had in this country was Sunday Edition, hosted by Mike Duffy, an hour of political discourse that included pulling in political pundits from all leanings… even a Quebec separatist. The show had punch because it had every perspective, and representatives from all over the country chiming in. No localized interest special lobby groups with the sole voice. And through hearing the differing opinions you were able to walk away with a more balanced, informed opinion than you could get from any news program or newspaper. Don’t forget, people get misquoted in print all the time. Stuart MacBride recently talked about this. It stands to reason people who are intelligent and aware will give the benefit of the doubt instead of blindly believing everything they see in newsprint.

In fact, it’s in thinking about that that I’ve wondered about another blanket statement that the author of this article didn’t qualify: “Despite what the bloggers themselves believe, the future of literary culture does not lie with blogs — or at least, it shouldn't.”

The question unanswered is where the future of literary culture does lie. Clearly, not in newspapers, not at this rate. In Canada we have Book Television, a full-time channel like HBO. There are programs where the point is to host panels and discuss issues of relevance. In fact, a recent one I watched was on the current trend in “trash” or “slam” reviewing. It was interesting to sit there listening to “respected” reviewers talk about how it’s a good thing for reviewers to just rip a book to shreds.

Of course, I don’t recall anyone qualifying that with “when it’s justified.” Just a hearty endorsement for ripping books apart in reviews. Then, of course, there was the kindler, gentler side represented. I was waiting for the happy medium: Shouldn’t a book get the kind of review it warrants? They were reading from a review of a Martin Amis book that was a personal attack on the author, because the reviewer felt betrayed by him. It was called a review but it was an editorial on Amis as a writer, not a critical assessment of the book (Yellow Dog), which apparently was so offensive. You know what? Even if the next Rankin book was a complete letdown for me, I wouldn’t go and write a “review” and talk about how he’d failed me as a reader. It would be one thing to argue that the current book did not measure up to his established track record, based on an evaluation of the books. It would be quite another to mourn someone as a fallen author who’s just churning out senseless pulp for the masses to make a buck. It’s trends like that that undermine the credibility of reviewing itself. I mean, as a reader and as a reviewer myself, I get the feeling some people are trying to sensationalize reviews with scandalous opinions in order to make them more interesting. And that is not the point of a review either. Frankly, some like prime rib, others like chicken cordon bleu. A lot of people like coffee, but I can’t stand the stuff. It doesn’t make anyone right or wrong, it just means we have different tastes. The reviewer is supposed to be letting people know if the book will suite their taste buds and if it’s a worthy read. The review they talked about on that program was an example of someone who had a pretty high opinion of themselves and who’d stepped way beyond the bounds of what reviewing is supposed to be about – it clearly was about the reviewer and the author, and had nothing to do with being an exchange between the reviewer and readers. (Justifying my skepticism that, no matter what reviews are supposed to be, not all reviewers for newspapers clearly understand that. And if they don’t understand that, it opens the door to asking all those ethical questions I believe the NBCC was justified in asking.)

I don’t have the answers, but at least I’m open enough to admit it. This article doesn’t have the answers either, and doesn’t even assess all aspects of internet review that currently exist. I don’t completely disagree with concerns about general blogging reviews. However, the quality and value of those reviews will vary, site to site, blogger to blogger. There are some excellent bloggers and online reviewers - Lesa Holstine, a librarian with a lot of experience in the book business, Brian Lindenmuth (the link is to his recent review of Hard Man) at Fantasy Book Spot, who does more in depth reviews than most newspaper reviewers do, Russel D. McLean, who does exceptional reviews for Crime Scene Scotland.

One thing is certain: Solving the problem of dwindling review space won’t happen by making sweeping generalizations. You can’t defend reviewing as an institution with blanket statements either. It’s like saying all priests lead godly lives, or all politicians are honourable. There are going to be reviewers who are unethical, because there are unethical people in every business, in every industry, in every walk of life. It’s a fact. Saying otherwise is na├»ve.

For the record, if I feel there is some relationship basis that makes it impossible for me to defend my credibility on a review, I don’t review the book. Some organizations I’ve left have authors I will never review. It’s more for my own peace of mind than anything. While I can trust myself to be objective and judge work on its own merits, others can look at the situation and speculate that criticisms may have been leveled for personal reasons. I just don’t need the headache. Having left two organizations I did belong to, with hard feelings between myself and some members unresolved, I have no intention of joining other organizations and putting myself in that position again. I recently discussed the spouse of an author who rebutted a review publicly. What nobody has publicly considered is that the spouse has ensured that reviewer can never review works by that author again. If they do and are completely positive, people will say the reviewer backed down to pressure and didn’t want any more hassles. If the review is negative, people will say they’re getting even for the rebuttal. The very act of reviewing another book by the author exposes this reviewer to questions about their integrity, but not because of anything they have done. Believe me, if it was me, I would ban that author from being reviewed in Spinetingler. The potential repercussions simply are not worth the headaches. At the end of the day, we reviewers have to trust our own integrity. Just because I know I endeavor to be fair and honest doesn’t mean others will automatically believe I am. That is another fact of life. I just sign my name to reviews I know I can live with, and don’t worry about the rest. There will always be critics. As far as I’m concerned, the only time I’m at risk of compromising integrity is when I stop asking myself those ethical questions.

In my opinion, it’s a shame more reviewers don’t see that.