Monday, December 10, 2007

Ethics in Book Reviewing

Thanks to Bookninja for the link to this post at Critical Mass, summarizing results of the National Book Critics' Circle survey on ethics in book reviewing.

Naturally, being a reviewer and a book reviews editor, I have my own opinions on these questions.

Here they are:

Should a book review editor assign a book to a casual acquaintance of the author -- e.g., someone the reviewer may have met at a writing conference, party or on a panel, but who is not a close friend?

This isn't usually a conflict of interest. I've reviewed books by quite a few people I've made casual contact with; some of those reviews have been glowing, others much less so. It depends largely on the reviewer's level of professionalism. As an editor, I try to avoid assigning books to people acquainted with the author, but if I feel that an acquaintance is the best person for the job, then I think it's stupid to give the assignment to someone less qualified.

Should a book review editor assign a book to a friend of the author?

99% no. It is important here to distinguish between a review of a newly published book and a more scholarly or personal essay, however. Tho in most cases, the latter is probably best avoided as well.

That said, I did once write a review of a friend's book--perhaps appropriately, a collection of criticism--but only after I told the editor I couldn't do it for ethical reasons and he insisted that I was the reviewer he wanted. I made it very clear in the review that I had certain favourable biases towards the author of the book. As I said in my caveat, I was an admirer of the author's writing long before we became friends. This is often the case in the literary world, and it complicates matters somewhat.

Should a book review editor assign a book on subject A to a reviewer who has also written a book on subject A, or a subject extremely close to that?

Whenever possible, I try to assign reviews, especially of non-fiction books, to people with some expertise in the subject matter. In some cases, I've sought out reviewers whose evaluations I figured would be strongly critical; in others I've assigned reviews to people who would be more likely to be sympathetic. I'm not a believer in the "objective review" and even if such a creature could possibly exist, I don't think it'd be much to look at. Reviews should be informative and entertaining--and friction is a factor in how entertaining a review might be.

Is it right for book review editors to allow reviewers to request a particluar book, even though that practice occasionally leads to backscratching and attempted set-ups?

I don't have a problem with reviewers requesting particular books, since people tend to write best about what they want to write about. It's an editor's ultimate responsibility, however, to say yes or no to that request, using his best judgment to decide the matter.

Is it the book review editor's obligation to question a prospective reviewer about potential conflicts of interest, rather than the reviewer's to raise the subject?

If the editor has reason to suspect a potential c.o.i., she should ask about it. If the reviewer does not disclose an actual or potential c.o.i., he is behaving unethically.

Is it ethical for a reviewer to decline to review a book he has already accepted for review, on the ground that he didn't like the book and doesn't want to say negative things in print?

Absolutely not. Reviewing is journalism and choosing only to report good news is grossly irresponsible. If you don't like the job description, seek other work. Similarly, an editor shouldn't reject a commissioned review on the grounds that it is too negative. This happens all the time, however, and it's a despicable practice.

Sometimes an editor gives me a range of titles from which to choose, and I deliberately avoid books that look crappy because I don't like wasting my own time reading bad books, but if I've agreed to review a book sight-unseen, then I believe I'm bound to honour the commitment.

It's interesting that, as per the NBCC blog post, this is a question on which perceptions have shifted from my position towards favouring it more. There is a lot of hostility out there towards the practice of "negative reviewing" or, more pejoratively, "snark". I wonder if the anti-snark lobby has had an influence on this shift.

Should anyone mentioned in the acknowledgments of a book be barred from reviewing it?

Yup. If the person's acknowledged, presumably they had a hand in helping the writing process somehow. As a friend and collaborator of the author, they can't be expected to have a reasonable degree of detachment.

Should authors who publish with a particular house be permitted to review other books published by that house?

While as a reviewer I feel perfectly capable of doing this responsibly and have no particular feelings of loyalty towards my publisher, the appearance of a c.o.i. is no different from an actual c.o.i, so as an editor I see this as ethically dubious.

Should a writer be allowed to review the book of someone who shares the same literary agent?

I'd never thought of this one before, but I guess not, for the same reasons as writers sharing a publisher.

Should a person who has written an unpaid blurb for a book be allowed to write a fuller review of the book?

Absolutely not. Even if it's unpaid, this is work that a writer has done on behalf of the publisher. If you want to be able to review the book, you shouldn't blurb it.

Should an editor ever assign a book to a reviewer who is known to hold aesthetic, political or literary views contrary to those of the author?

Yep. As I say above, it can make for very interesting reading.

Should an editor ever assign a book to a reviewer who is known to hold aesthetic, political or literary views similar to the author's?

Yep. Again, this can be interesting, tho the friction factor's likely to be lower. That said, subtle differences in similar viewpoints can often be grounds for serious disagreement.

Is it ever ethical to review a book without reading the entire book?

Only if you make it clear you've not read the whole thing and have a good reason for it.

Should literary blogs adhere to the same rules of ethics, whatever the consensus may turn out to be on them, as newspaper book-review sections?

Depends on the sort of blog you're talking about and whether there's any money involved. I don't write formal reviews for this space because no one pays me to do it. But I do mention a lot of books, some of which I have blatant biases for or against and would never review for pay. But a site like Bookninja, which has paid advertisements, pays for some contributions and is more of a magazine format, should be bound by the same ethical considerations as print review fora. Ditto for a site like, in which an editor assigns books to reviewers.

Should literary journals, serious popular magazines (e.g., The Atlantic), and so-called opinion magazines (e.g., The Nation) adhere to the same rules of ethics, whatever the consensus may turn out to be on them, as newspaper book-review sections?

Don't see why not. The most explicitly scrupulous publication I write for is Quill & Quire, which is a trade magazine. In my experience, they set a standard that any other review forum would do well to follow.

Should a literary blogger review the book of another literary blogger to whose blog she or he links?

Again, this depends on the nature of the blog.

Should freelance book critics request only those books from publishers that they're likely to review or judge for an award, or is it okay for freelancers to request a much larger number of books?

As many respondents to the survey have noted, this is an oddly phrased question. Personally, I tend to request only titles I intend to review or have reviewed by someone else. I have occasionally not followed thru on this intent for one reason or another, and this is bound to happen. I don't think anyone should request a book just because they want to read it, with no intention of reviewing it. That strikes me as dishonest. If you want to read a book, go out and buy it. But if a publisher sends you an unsolicited copy, you're under no obligation. When a publisher or author approaches me about sending me a review copy, I make it clear that they're free to send it, but that I can make no promises about it getting a review. As long as everyone understands the conditions of the transaction, there's no ethical problem.

If you think it's okay for freelancers to request more books than they can review or judge, is it okay for them to sell whichever ones they don't want to keep?

You shouldn't sell a book you've requested and not reviewed; not only does the publisher lose money in such a transaction, but you have now profited materially. Dirty pool. It's okay, however, to sell books you either didn't ask for or have already reviewed.

Is it okay to assign a book by author A to reviewer B, when author A has served as a major source for B in a book that B has already published?

I'd say generally not okay.

Is it okay for a book review editor, in deciding which books to review, to favor books by writers who also review regularly for that book section?

The key word here is "favor". If there's a marked bias towards reviewers for the magazine/paper getting their books reviewed, there's a problem. But I don't think it's fair to disqualify a freelancer's book for review simply because they've written for me. I try to find good writers and interesting thinkers to write reviews for me--and good writers and interesting thinkers are likely to produce books worthy of notice. But at CNQ we have an official policy against reviewing books by members of the editorial team and books published by Biblioasis.

Should a reviewer read other reviews of a book before reviewing it?

Absolutely, if they exist. I'm surprised that more people answered No than Yes to this. Reviews are part of the conversation about a book and a review that acknowledges other reviews is more likely to be part of the conversation than a monologue. If being unduly influenced is the concern, then the reviewer should probably be doing something other than reviewing books.

Is it okay for a reviewer to regularly review books from the same one (or two) favorite publishing houses?

I don't see this as a problem as long as there's no ulterior motive or under-the-table arrangement for doing so.

Is it okay for a reviewer to repeatedly review books by the same author over years and even decades?

Generally, yes. The more of an author's background a reviewer knows, the more textured the review is apt to be. That said, I tend to steer clear of books by authors I've reviewed negatively in the past, if only because of the perception that I might be "gunning" for said author. Also because, as I say above, I don't like wasting my time with bad books.

Should a reviewer sometimes be allowed to crib from his or her past reviews in writing about an author years later?

I don't see this as a problem unless it's blatant self-plagiarism with no new material.

Is it ever acceptable for a reviewer not to say what she or he really thinks about a book?

No. But there are many different ways of achieving this, some more subtle than others.

Is it okay for a book review section to both feature an author through a podcast meant to promote traffic to that book section's site, and also review the author's book, at more or less the same time?

As long as the decision to do this hasn't compromised the ethics of reviewer selection and review acceptance. If the review is intended more as an extension of the profile than as an independent critically-minded acceptance, then it's a problem.

Given that some companies -- payperpost, blogvertise, reviewme -- pay bloggers for reviews of products and services, should any book reviews commissioned in that way be identified as arising out of commissions?

Hey, how come no one ever tries to bribe me? No fair.

Should a review of a book be linked to its Amazon page or any other site that sells the book?

I don't see this as intrinsically problematic. Part of a book review's function is commercial, in the same way that movie reviews are; they help people decide if they want to read the book. A standard way of acquiring the book is to purchase it. Pointing out where it might be purchased isn't ethically questionable, unless it affects the content of the review itself--and as far as I know, links to a retailer come with no strings attached.

Is a book review that exists exclusively as an MP3 or other-type digital audio file less objective than a traditional print review because of its delivery elements (e.g., tone of voice)?

No, that's stupid. A skilled writer has no trouble conveying tone in a review. And anyway, objectivity, as such, is not all that important.

Is it okay for a newspaper or magazine to review books by current or former staff members?

Current, definitely not. Past, depends on the time elapsed, connections of past staffer to present admin, etc.

Is it okay for a newspaper book section or magazine to ignore self-published books that are submitted, e.g., iUniverse-type books?

A valuable point is made in the comments on the NBCC blog post: self-published books are not the same as vanity titles. A professionally produced self-published title deserves a chance to be reviewed as much as a press-published title. In some cases, it deserves more of a chance.


Lynda said...

Should a book review editor assign a book to a friend of the author?

You say 99% no, and speaking as a reviewer I don't disagree. In general readers mistrust that kind of review. On the other hand, when it's done honestly, there is that 1% where it works brilliantly. For example, when Lewis MacKenzie (a past commanding officer of Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry) reviewed Christie Blatchford's Fifteen Days: Stories of Bravery, Friendship, Life and Death from Inside the New Canadian Army in The Globe and Mail November 3, 2007, his lead began, "In the interests of full disclosure," and included, "in 1993...I was pleased to be selected her number-one valentine."

MacKenzie's respect for Blatchford is inseparable from the admiration of her work. I remember thinking as I read, that this was a perfect example of when a friend should review a friend, that I should keep a copy as an example.

MacKenzie's assessment as an experienced insider who has who has known Blatchford for many years, makes the review more immediate and perhaps even more trustworthy than someone writing more objectively.

The main reason it worked, aside from the fact that MacKenzie was honest about the connection in the lead, was that it was highly engaging and informative writing. Why has he persuaded me to consider a pro-military book I might not ordinarily be drawn to? Because he writes well, and from his review I understand that he reads well, too. Given that, speaking as a reader, I'll trust his eager heart-on-sleeve enthusiasm and take a chance on the book. Let's not forget that readers are astute enough to read through that and make their choices.

Zachariah Wells said...

Yeah, I almost said absolutely not, but of course there are circumstances and ways in which it can work beautifully. But most often what's bound to result is a species of positive ad hominem criticism. Ad hominem is a term the snark-haters seem enamored of, to the point that I've caught people using it as a synonym for negative, clearly ignorant of what those two words actually mean.

I just got a review in from a reviewer today who mentioned casually in the piece that he met the subject of the review recently over drinks. It was a nice touch, particularly since the review is quite critical; makes it clear that this is not a personal thing at all. I think it's silly to pretend to be objective. No such thing is possible in book reviewing. But an unreasonable degree of prejudice is to be avoided--in most cases.