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Monday, February 7, 2011

Should a Friend Review a Friend’s Book?

A friend (I’ll call her A) said recently that she could not review a particular book because she knows the author. Well, I know the author, too, and plan to review the book, so our conversation started me thinking about the ethics of book reviewing, about professionalism in writing and about where lines are and/or should be drawn, and here’s what I’ve come up with so far. (Forgive the analytical approach, please.) I welcome comments and other opinions.

Three basic relevant questions occurred to me.

(1) How well do you know the author and in what context?

In 1988 87% of book critics responding to a survey said that a book review editor should not assign a review to a friend of the author. Hairs were split on how close the friendship would have to be to violate reviewing standards. What about assigning a review to a writer who wrote a similar book or one on the same subject? There 79% said it was fine, because an uninformed review would be worse than one by a jealous competitor. (The reasoning was not phrased exactly as I have phrased it here.) When you think about it, you realize that people working on the same subject in the same field will probably be acquainted; the distinction made is between a “peer review” and a “sweetheart review,” the former a professional necessity, the latter—well, less than completely objective. The distinction, however, seems to sidestep rather than answer the question.

Gail Pool, author of Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America, answered unequivocally in an interview, “No, I don’t think a reviewer should review a friend’s book. The relationship is bound to interfere with her response to the book.” Can a line always be drawn between a relationship between colleagues and a friendship? What do you think?

(2) Are you being paid to review the book? If so, by whom?

The issue of a reviewer’s pay is another relevant factor. A reviewer paid by an author, we would probably all agree, is less likely to be perfectly frank about a book’s shortcomings, but what makes any writer, including a review, “professional” is getting paid. Paid writers of book reviews for newspapers and magazines are expected to uphold journalistic standards of objectivity. A difficulty here, as I see it, is that a review is not simply a report but includes an evaluation by the reviewer-- without an opinion, it is not a review. All reviews, therefore, are at least partially subjective. (Note how often reviewers disagree.) The real questions, therefore, as I see the matter, are whether the reviewer (a) can avoid being unduly biased and (b) will be comfortable in honestly expressing, in public, to a reading audience, her or his views of a friend’s work.

If a professional does it for money and an amateur does it for love--the basic crude distinction--how does that difference affect the honesty we look for in a book review? Does it?

(3) Is your identity hidden or disclosed?

As everyone surely knows by now, anyone can visit the site of a giant online bookseller and post a “review.” You need no credentials (you receive no pay, either), and your name need not appear. Can online ratings be manipulated by fraudulent reviews? If you search online, you will find both advice on how to manipulate ratings for your book and technology offered to prevent such manipulation. Murky waters. What I think of reviewers putting their names on their reviews will be clearer below.

My own situation:

Here are some of the differences between A’s situation and mine, as I see them: (1) She is recognized as a professional writer. I am not. (2) She is paid for her reviews. No one pays me to write my blog. (3) Her reviews are published by newspapers, mine only on my own blog, of which I am the “publisher.”

Here are some ways in which our situations are alike: (1) Good writing--our own and others’--is important to both of us. (2) We try to do our work well (hers paid, mine unpaid). (3) Neither of us would praise a book we considered undeserving of praise, although (4) both of us receive, from time to time, free advance reading copies of books that publishers hope we will review favorably. Finally (and there may be more similarities, but I’ll stop with this one), (5) we put our names, and therefore our reputations, on the line along with our opinions.

(My readership is a tiny fraction of A’s, but my integrity is no less important to me for that. It might be surprising and even amusing to a lot of people how much stubborn pride a small bookseller can have. There’s more than one reason we’re called “independent.”)

Okay, so here’s my bottom line--

Book Reviewing on This Blog:

- "Books in Northport" is more general than a book review blog but occasionally posts reviews. I write one from time to time, as does my bookstore volunteer, and at least one was contributed by a good friend whose only other connection to Dog Ears Books is as a customer.
- I don’t review books by request--only when the spirit moves me.
- I don’t review every book I read or even every book I love madly. Just don’t want to be that tied down. This blog is not an assignment from someone else. Here, as in my bookstore, I am my own boss, and here in my blog the whole world is potentially my oyster. The number of possible topics is infinite.
- Most of the time, if I don’t care for a book I don’t bother writing about it, unless there is something in it so troubling to me that I want to get my view of it “out there.”
- When the author is a friend of mine, you’ll know that, too. (An example of a review with such disclosure can be found here.) Sometimes writers have found me through my blog and sent books to me, although we have never met. Sometimes I’ll review an older book rather than a new one, simply because it speaks to me in some important way. Only on occasion do books come to me directly from publishers (who send only the book--no check!), and never is there an intermediate publisher, such as a newspaper, paying me for what I write.
- If I review a new book, it’s going to be one I hope to sell in my bookstore because it's a book I think deserves an audience and one I judge to be well worth its cover price. I don’t “push” books I don’t believe in. My integrity as a writer and my integrity as a bookseller are not in conflict. And this, really, is my bottom line.


Gerry said...

I think you're worrying about it too much. There's clearly nothing wrong with writing a review of a friend's book when the reviewer says, "This author is my friend." The reason it doesn't happen so much among Professional Reviewers is that they adopt the fiction that they are knowledgeable yet objective.

People trust you, personally, their bookseller, their neighbor, their pixelated pal, to recommend books they'd enjoy. Have at it.

P. J. Grath said...

Thank you for supporting my position, Gerry. Need I say that if a friend of mine wrote a book I didn't like, I wouldn't touch a review with a 10' pole?

Dawn said...

I'm late to this discussion but I agree...writing a review in a blog is something like having a discussion with a friend about a book they read and thought you'd like too....a special and not politically motivated discussion. Friend/authors get that...and if they don't...well...oh well.

Dawn said...

I'm late to this discussion, but I agree with Gerry. Writing a review in your blog is like having a personal discussion with a friend about a book you think we'd like. It's not a political discussion... and we'd miss it if you didn't!

P. J. Grath said...

Dawn, you probably thought your first comment hadn't registered, but it did. I let both through because they're slightly different--and I wouldn't want not to show the exclamatory support at the end of your second try. Thanks!

Kathy said...

Interesting thoughts! I agree with you (and Dawn and Gerry). If you say that the author is your friend, you've covered most ethical challenges.

P. J. Grath said...

Thanks, Kathy. I suppose some people might think it's a conflict for a bookseller to write a review, whether the bookseller knows the author or not, but in my bookstore when someone asks my opinion of a book, they get an honest answer. Why would I want to praise a disappointing book, thus disappointing and maybe losing a customer? Doesn't make sense to me.

Kathy said...

Nor to me.

P. J. Grath said...

Since this post was written and published, I have reviewed for FOREWORD and EDIBLE GRANDE TRAVERSE and been paid for those reviews. I chose the books to review, did not know the authors, reviewed the books honestly.