Last week I saw a book review by someone I know in an online newspaper (not a literary magazine) that gets a lot of exposure. The book under review was one by someone else I know—someone who is a very close friend of the reviewer. I read the review and looked for the disclaimer that informed the reader of the relationship, but there was none.
The review was, as you might guess, extremely positive. (I own a copy of that book and plan to read it soon; knowing the author and his work, and liking both, I expect that I will enjoy it thoroughly.) Later I saw a review of the same book in another online publication. This one was also very positive, but this reviewer began by disclosing a long-standing friendship with the author. Although such a disclosure may call the reviewer’s impartiality into question, at least the reader of the review was made aware of the possible bias and could factor that into a judgment about the review and the book. The reader of the first review would not have had the same information.
I was appalled by that first review. Of course, I don’t know whether the fault lies with the newspaper or with the reviewer. Did the reviewer disclose the relationship to the editors and they chose not to run the disclaimer? Or did the reviewer just not tell them? Either way, though, the reading public was done a disservice.
On the other hand, I suspect that this is a common problem, or at least not limited to that one newspaper. The world of writers is in many ways small, and reviewers are often acquainted with the authors of books they are asked to review. I have turned down some reviewing assignments for that reason. And if I do write a review of a book by a friend, I’m sure to let the editor know. Last year The Nervous Breakdown asked me to write a review. I am friendly with the author and I told the editors that this was the case. They included a note to that effect with the review. Correctly, in my opinion. But if you read a review and you don’t see such a disclaimer, can you assume that the reviewer is impartial? No, apparently not. There’s a pretty good chance, it seems to me, that the review will be biased in some way. No wonder book reviews are disappearing. If you can’t believe them anyway, what good are they?
Note that we’re not talking about Amazon.com reader comments here, which could be posted by anyone—the author’s mother or his lover or even the author himself. I’m not even talking about reviews on a personal blog. I’m concerned here with real book reviews in real, edited publications that make some claim to being credible.
Perhaps there is a Code of Ethics for book reviewers. I looked at the website of the National Book Critics Circle and didn’t find one, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. In the meantime, though, I very much like the approach of Rain Taxi Review of Books
, which includes the following in its guidelines for reviewers:
Rain Taxi is dedicated to publishing unbiased, objective reviews. If you have a connection with the author or press, please disclose it upon submission. Not all relationships constitute conflicts of interest, but we respectfully request your candor regarding any relationships. If you are friends with an author and would like to highlight their work, please feel free to email us and suggest a review, or consider pitching an interview instead.
That, it seems to me, is the right way to go, and I feel I can give some credence to reviews I read in Rain Taxi. This other publication I mentioned—not so much.