The case for biased book reviewers.

Media criticism.
Aug. 12 2005 3:28 PM

Fair Is Square

The case for hiring biased book reviewers.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.

Last Sunday (Aug. 7), the Washington Post "Book World" apologized to its readers for violating its own conflict-of-interest rules by publishing a Marianne Wiggins review of John Irving's novel Until I Find You. The editor's note reads:

John Irving, author of Until I Find You, has called our attention to his previous associations with Book World's reviewer of that book, Marianne Wiggins (July 10). That contact, which we have now corroborated, should have disqualified her as a reviewer; our signed agreements with reviewers spell out our conflict-of-interest rules carefully ("if you have had any contact, friendly or otherwise, with the author of this book ... or if there is any possibility of an appearance of a conflict of interest in the assignment of this review to you, please let Book World know immediately"). Had we known that Irving had dedicated one of his earlier novels to Marianne Wiggins's ex-husband, Salman Rushdie, and had we known that Irving and Wiggins had socialized with each other in the past, we would not have made the assignment. We apologize to our readers for this misstep.

Advertisement

"Book World" Editor Marie Arana calls the review a "fabulous piece of writing" in a phone interview. But it makes no difference to her that the review was well written or that novelist Wiggins' view (negative to the extreme) was shared by other reviewers. A violation of Post ethics—failure to advise the book editor of contact with the author under review—is a violation of Post ethics, and hence the apology.

Arana adds that the Post wants to give readers the confidence that book reviews are assigned fairly and that there are no hidden agendas in the picking of reviewers.

Stamping out conflict of interest may result in a "fairer" book review. But will it produce a better one? I think not.

To begin with, the world of fiction is pretty small. The number of folks who are any good at writing reviews of fiction is smaller still. By the time you find one willing to review a book, it's inconceivable that he or she not have preconceived notions about the author, the author's work, or the proper way to write a novel. A hundred other conflicts may exist: relationships with literary agents, friends, or friends of friends; workplace affiliations; political sympathies, religious views; and on and on. Also, writers are notoriously petty people: I'd wager that nine out of 10 who receive a bad review can discover some undisclosed conflict or conspiracy that caused the reviewer to slag them.

To locate a reviewer who has only a passing social acquaintance with the author in question may be fair, but fair to whom? The author, maybe. But book reviews aren't yearbook photos for authors to treasure. They're for readers. Editors who obsess on fairness do so at the risk of inducing narcolepsy in their readers.

I don't mean to set up Arana as my punching bag, just the peg for my prejudice against fairness. All American newspaper book-review sections aggressively police for fairness. For instance, when assigning, the New York Times Book Review, too, wants to know if you're friend or foe of the author, or otherwise conflicted.

But if the Post is going to apologize for publishing the Wiggins review on ethical grounds, I'd like to see it ask for reader forgiveness when fully vetted and unconflicted reviewers give bad books a free pass. That's the real scandal in book reviewing. All too often, gutless reviewers genuflect to "major writers" such as Irving, composing fawning reviews that barely hint at how bad the books are. For an example of this kind of book criticism, see Warner Berthoff's ("the Henry B. and Anne M. Cabot Professor of English and American Literature Emeritus on Harvard University's faculty of arts and sciences") review of John Updike's 2004 novel, Villages, in the Boston Globe.

The point of a book review isn't to review worthy books fairly, it's to publish good pieces. Better to assign a team of lively-but-conflicted writers to review a slew of rotten books than a gang of dullards to the most deserving releases of the season. British newspaper book reviews subscribe to the former ethos, often assigning books to the well-known enemies of authors, creating tension and reader interest from the get-go: Can the prejudiced reviewer write against his personal feelings to tell the truth, the readers wonder? Slate adopted this approach when it assigned Michael Isikoff (foe) and Timothy Noah (friend) to review Sidney Blumenthal's The Clinton Wars. The point of the double assignment wasn't to extend extra fairness to Blumenthal, it was to enlighten the reader.

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.

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.

******

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.

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Dec. 19 2014 4:15 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? Staff writer Lily Hay Newman shares what stories intrigued her at the magazine this week.