Thursday, July 28, 2011

Friday Forum: An ethics of reviewing?

Every once and again the issue of what a reviewer owes a writer gets bandied about in the book blogosphere. Should we write negative reviews? Should we disclose friendships/acquintances? If we criticize a book, what do we owe in the way of evidence an argumentation?

Well, a British court went a step further than "should," fining a newspaper more than $100,000 in damages for libel. Turns out, one of their reviewers made a claim about a book that turned out to be wrong, legally and libelously wrong. 

This story and decision exceeds the bounds of what your average reviewer, professional or otherwise, will likely encounter, but it does remind us that reviews affect, in a very real way, the material well-being of authors. A bad review can hurt their ability to ply their trade. A good review can bolster it. 

If there is an ethics of reviewing, it certain begins well-short of legal wrong-doing, but it's extremely difficult to define. Clearly, making up counter-evidence is beyond the pale. But how about if you just make a mistake? What if you give a book a bad review because you misunderstood, overlooked, or just plain forgot something?

These wouldn't be actionable offenses, but they seem to me breeches of a reviewer's responsibility to make judgments based on the books before them. 

So the question is: what might an ethics of reviewing look like? What is the bare minimum standard that people who discuss books publicly and render judgments of them should uphold? 


  1. First, last, and foremost, we owe everyone honesty. How does the book hold up? What made us laugh, cry, grimace, and look at every shadow? Is it fun or is it lacking in any resemblance to literature. Good is subjective, as are the emotions evoked by the book and the author's craft, or lack thereof, but the basics remain in how the book is constructed, whether the grammar is good, the spelling correct, and the punctuation present. Is the printing sloppy and are the characters flat? Is the story believable. These are the tools of the trade.

    As a reviewer, I am scrupulous in my assessment of the books I review. I have a passing friendship with some of the writers, gained over years of reading and reviewing their work, but business is business and friendship is friendship. When I can no longer be objective, I recuse myself.

    As a writer, I find it difficult to accept negative reviews by people who admit they don't read the genres I write and that they have objections to the content. Instead of writing a review, they should have thanked me for the book and recused themselves. My ethics are not someone else's. That is what reviewing comes down to -- ethics. If you have them, be gentle, be firm, be exact, and be honest. If you don't have them, find a bank to rob or someone else to torture, but leave my books alone.

  2. I always feel bad posting a negative review.  Well almost always.  In fact, I was sent one book for review recently and I just can't give it a good review.  I didn't finish it, so thus far I have just ignored it and not written anything about it.

  3. Kim @ Sophisticated DorkinessJuly 29, 2011 at 10:34 AM

    Thanks for sharing the link to that story -- I'd missed this particular piece of book news. The assertions the reviewer makes about the author are extremely serious, especially since the author is a journalist and credibility and honesty are everything.

    The ethic or principle I try to use when writing my reviews is transparency. I aim to be honest about how I received the books I review and if I have relationships or experiences that might impact my thoughts on the book. I think being as open as necessary about myself and my bookish tendencies is the best way to be an ethical reviewer on my blog.

    I've just started doing some paid reviews for a local newspaper, and those present a different challenge. While I think transparency is still important, I also think my personal feelings about a book are less important. Honestly, I'm not sure I've entirely figured out how to approach that, but I enjoy JM Cornwell's note to "be gentle, be firm, be exact, and be honest."

  4. Like JM wrote, I think the first thing we owe as reviewers is honesty - well, honesty and depth. I sometimes hesitate to explain myself for fear that I've missed something or simply haven't understood a book, but a full accounting of my opinions makes it possible for others to either understand the reasoning behind a review or to help me understand where I might have gone wrong. I think we need to treat books and authors with respect, just as we expect authors and our readers to treat US with respect. And as JM wrote, this sometimes may mean recusing ourselves if we can't treat a book respectfully...if someone admits to being incapable of "objectively" reviewing a book (as if such a thing is even possible) because they are averse to the subject matter or language of the book, they shouldn't be reviewing it but should leave it to someone else.

    I'm wobbly on the ethics of reviewing when it comes to human fallibility. We all make mistakes, miss details, misread, and those can come through in our reviews - maybe one of the things I like about the bloggers I read is that while our opinions may differ, they're always able to defend their readings. Sometimes, though, errors seem inexcusably careless. A couple months ago I read a review of Goon Squad in which the blogger wrote that she might have liked the book had it been a collection of linked short stories but that as a "novel" it did not work and she couldn't recommend it. Goon Squad, though, IS a collection of linked stories - and however it's marketed, it seems careless for a "reviewer" to say she couldn't recommend a book because she was unable to understand or excuse the way she had thought of the book before reading it. 

  5. Since bloggers, like me, are not paid and therefore not professional, I think we've a different level of ethics.  What most blogs do is much closer to conversation than formal reviewing.  Perhaps is a hybrid of both.  There should be an ethical standard for book blogs, but I'm not at all convinced that it should be the same one the New York Review of Books or The Gaurdian uses.

    I'll agree to honesty, certainly.  I do reveal when I've received a free copy as well as any other biases I might bring to the table.  Other than that, I think we're free to roam where we will, be firm or not, gentle or not, exact or not.  These qualitites will generate the overall character and reputation our blogs enjoy, but they should not be set as ethical standards.   

    And we're certainly free to read and review anything we please.  Should I ever read My Friend Flicka I'm going to review it as I see fit, even though I never read novels about horse and have only a passing knowledge of the subject.  If I think the book dwells on horses too much, I'm going to say so.  People who read my review can take or leave my opinion as they see fit. 

    Book blogs are as much about the experience of reading as they are about books.  Reading a genre you've never read before is an exexperience many of us are interested in.  That fact that it didnt' turn out to be a very good experience, is fairgame for a blog post.

  6. Starting a writing career can be a bitch, so I tend to not be nit picky when it comes to books from young writers. I came across two or three that were pretty bad and I held up most of the venom. Maybe I shouldn't have? I don't know. I think a reviewer owes the truth about his judgement to his readers, but not "the objective truth". Readers deserve to know whether it's good or bad, because if they read you, it's your judgement they trust. 

    What I'm struggling to say here is to not change this into a spectacle a drag a writer in the mud. I mean you can do it if you want with a famous writer (and let yourself be vulnerable to their legion of fans), but you know, if you don't like something that comes from a struggling midlister or a first time writer, I don't think a public destruction is very ethical. 

  7. Because my last assignment on active duty was in the Office of the Inspector General, which (among other things) reviews potential ethics violations, I've come to understand "ethics" not so much as a set of rules like the Ten Commandments, but rather as the process of making "ethical" choices - those which are legally appropriate and which demonstrate integrity of intent and action.  

    Military ethics at the senior level has an involved financial aspect.  Senior military officers and those working in appropriations-related fields are required to file financial disclosure statements in which they must document personal investments, outside business relationships, and (I think) even personal relationships with civilians employed in the defense sector in order to avoid impropriety or the appearance of impropriety.  So.

    I think that a reviewer should in some way disclose any financial interest he or she may have in the book's success.  If a reviewer is being paid by a newspaper or magazine, there are probably some organizational rules about being paid for a review, and that I, the subscriber, could probably get access to those rules if I really wanted to know.  Or that a lawyer could get them if there was some legal question about the review.  If a book blogger is being paid to write a review with something other than a free copy (which I read as a request for a review rather than a contract to write a favorable review), I'd like to know that too; but since there are no blog police (thank goodness), it would be up to the blogger to disclose that information.

    I'd define "integrity of intent" in reviewing as the following:  writing the review with the intent to share thoughts or impressions about the work, not with the intent to boost or damage the author's career, or to damage others' impressions of the author's artistic and professional credibility. 

    And I'd define "integrity of action" in reviewing to mean:
    - Actually reading the work in its entirety first (yes, I've read at least one review in which the reviewer stopped reading the book before the 50th page but wrote the review anyway);
    - Taking some time to think about impressions of the book, not just blasting off a Tweet or whatever (I don't do the Twittery stuff) 30 seconds after closing it;
    - Backing up assertions about the work's quality with evidence from the text;
    - Being open to the possibility that one may have missed or misunderstood something, and to revising an opinion if better evidence is presented; and
    - Reviewing with compassion and humanity, tempering a negative opinion or impression with a little humility and feeling for the struggle of a writer (especially a newly published one).  I'd rather read "This would have worked better if..." or "I didn't understand what the author was attempting in this chapter" than "This writer sucks snake s--- through a straw." 

  8. My approach is to first acknowledge that to review is to judge, and that my judgements are a reflection of my personal tastes. No matter the expertise of any one critic, they're all human, and humans have tastes. 

    Then, I try as best as I can to consider books completely out of context - a piece of work should be judged on it's own merits. Not the writer's own merits: the book's. It shouldn't matter that the author is a female, or handicapped, or a prisoner of war, or a Harvard grad, or that the novel is the author's first or tenth. Does the book fulfill it's OWN potential in terms of plot, character, language, structure, growth? What was my experience, as one single reader, through this book? If I can describe this, and say why I feel the way about it that I do, using textual examples, that's as far as my job goes. 

  9. You bring up a really great point.  I decided a long time ago that I wouldn't do book reviews myself, although that was largely because my reading choices are really obscure and irrelevant to most people.  Not to mention that I would have a tough time writing a bad review, knowing that my personal opinion could be causing real harm.  Now you've made me feel even better about my decision to not review!