Editorial fears over book reviewers' potential biases are exaggerated
Tuesday, December 05, 2006
When the Los Angeles Times assigned me to review a book about German art some years ago, the editors sent along a copy of their standard ethics memo. If this book happens to be by a friend or enemy, the memo said, "please notify the Book Review imme diately." They didn't want reviews by people connected to the author.
The Conflict Police had struck again!
On the book pages of North America, nothing matters more than conflict of interest. It makes editors fearful and authors bitter. Nobody complains if reviewers can't write, know little about their subject, put their readers to sleep or absurdly overrate a book's quality. But if there's a chance that Bruce's vicious teardown of Samantha's novel was motivated by a rotten review Samantha's husband gave Bruce six years ago, it's a scandal. This is a popular zone of controversy, partly because it's a literary issue that even the illiterate think they understand.
Last year the Washington Post published an abject apology for allowing Marianne Wiggins to rubbish John Irving's novel, Until I Find You. Irving is a friend of Wiggins' ex-husband, Salman Rushdie.
Her excellent piece was far from the book's only negative review. No matter. The Post editors decided they shouldn't have trusted her to deal honestly with her former husband's friend's novel.
When I looked at that note from the Los Angeles Times, I reflected happily that the author in question, being previously unknown to me, was neither friend nor enemy. But reading it also made me think: How fair, how ethical, how pure --and how stupid!
Do the people editing book pages read criticism as well as commissioning it? If they do, they must know that in the last century much of the best critical writing was produced by people close to their subjects. Have they heard that the most celebrated Ame rican critic of his time, Edmund Wilson, wrote more than a few words about his dear friend F. Scott Fitzgerald? Or that H.L. Mencken had a platoon of novelists he both reviewed and published in his magazine, the American Mercury?
That won't impress the Conflict Police. They never rest. They live in fear that a sinister network of interlocking backstabbers operates within the otherwise pristine republic of letters. Armed only with a sense of self-righteousness, they are determined to purge the book pages of unethical conduct, even if they have to destroy reviewing in the process.
The Conflict Police are to books what assistant principals are to high schools, overseers who believe that if they abandon their posts everything will collapse into moral chaos.
of the Toronto Star, joined their number last week with an editorial-page column that started with one questionable case and expanded into an attempt to create previously unknown standards for reviewers. A Star reviewer had seriously disparaged the book o f a novelist (who was new to him) without acknowledging her status: She was well known elsewhere and had been, among other things, a finalist for the Governor General's Award. Moreover, the reviewer didn't mention that his own novel had been rejected, nine months earlier, by the publisher of the book he was reviewing. Quelle horreur! "This," said Burnside, "was a conflict of interest that should have been declared and shared with readers." I don't think so. What if the reviewer had been turned down by a d ozen other houses? (That happens. It happened to Brian Moore.)He would have to speckle his reviews with full-disclosure notices for years or decades to come. Or maybe Burnside would be willing to compromise and legislate a statute of limitations for review crime. |If rejection by a publisher creates a problem, so does acceptance. Burnside believes that reviewers should avoid reviewing the books of publishers for which they have written books. She focuses on the Star's book columnist, Philip Marchand, noting that he's been published by five publishers in Canada and three more in the U.S. Burnside believes he should avoid reviewing the books of all those companies. |That could sharply limit the range of his work and baffle anyone who is familiar with what he does. Burnside doesn't know it, but Marchand's opinions make him the worst possible target for her campaign. He stands well outside the consensual view of Canadian writing and his reviews suggest he's not intimidated by publishers or anyone else. He conside rs Atwood cold and Ondaatje unreadable. As for Ontario Gothic fiction (from the good Robertson Davies to the not-so-good Timothy Findley) -- well, in Marchand it brings on the old ennui. |Burnside and her ilk imply that there are available to the newspapers many talented, unbiased, unaffiliated reviewers whose work will never create "an appearance of a conflict of interest." My guess is that no such reviewers exist. We all have our biases, and should have -- otherwise we would be less than human, therefore less than interesting. |Burnside quotes Dan Smith, the Star books editor, who complains that there aren't enough independent critics. Could that possibly have anything to do with the fees he pays? The Star, by far the richest paper in Canada, pays $250 for a book review, roughly what it paid 15 years ago. |With Burnside's encouragement, Smith plans to send reviewers a cautionary note about conflict of interest. Perhaps that will make them more pure, though still poor. |There's a story about a man who wrote to the editor of the Times of London: "Sirs, of all the people who might have reviewed my book, could you not find one who was not my former wife?" That's probably apocryphal, but maybe not. In 1982, when A. Alvarez, the poetry critic, discussed his own marital history in Life After Marriage: Scenes from Divorce, the London Review of Books carried a rather acerbic review by his first wife. She disclosed her status, not in apology but to prove she was an expert witness. |Umberto Eco, a distinguished journali st in Milan as well as an internationally admired theorist, sees conflict-of-interest hysteria as childish and mainly limited to over-earnest North Americans. As he says, in Italy it's routine for his books to be reviewed by both his friends and his enemies. And if the reviewers weren't enemies or friends when they started reading the book, they were one or the other when the review came out.