The case for biased book reviewers.

Media criticism.
Aug. 12 2005 3:28 PM

Fair Is Square

The case for hiring biased book reviewers.

(Continued from Page 1)

The British model tends to make for much better reviewing. Sample, if you will, the beginning of this Observer review of Until I Find You by Adam Mars-Jones, which is enough to make Irving hope Wiggins' attack in "Book World" becomes the review of record. Mars-Jones writes:

Not all American novels are too long, but most novels which are too long these days are American. The bloated book belongs in a category with the yard-long hot dog and the stretch limo. The main difference is that the craving for extended sausage and limo comes from the customers—the eaters, the renters.

The need to publish ever-larger books, such as John Irving's 800-plus page Until I Find You, is a mysterious part of the psychology of the writer. It may be that readers like a book they can get their teeth into, but one which will dislocate their jaws? Not likely.

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What should book-review editors do about "conflict-of-interest"? Allow only lefties to review books by other lefties, as righties are too opposed to their views to give them a fair hearing? Or ban lefties from reviewing books by other lefties, because of the internecine competition among them? Or should we genetically engineer and raise a master race of milquetoast centrists to compose Solomonic opinions of books? By their very nature, opinions are subjective and idiosyncratic. They're anything but fair. So why must the American book-review industry expend so much energy to make the process of picking a reviewer fair?

My preference, no surprise, is to let it all hang out in the British fashion. Sometimes the enemy of the book author is the only person willing to write the truth. American editors shouldn't necessarily unassign a review if they learn that a reviewer had an affair with the book author in question's spouse. Instead, the editor should 1) encourage reviewers to disclose conflicts in the review and 2) run a standing disclaimer in the front of the book review explaining that the review lowered its ethical standards in order to raise its literary ones.

In the case of the Irving review, Wiggins could have written, "Just so you know, my former husband, that notorious megalomaniac who earned a fatwa from the Ayatollah Khomeini for his novel Satanic Verses, adores Irving in public, and Irving returned the affection by dedicating one of his books to him. I found Irving an acceptable social companion, too, but let's put it this way: I never dedicated one of my novels to him."

If reviewers refuse to disclose, let bloggers feast on them, and book-review editors black-list them if they wish. In any event, 'tis better to deal unfairly with one book author than to disappoint 1 million readers.

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British newspaper obituaries are better, too. Here's my favorite of all time. Send your favorite obit to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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