On the Ethics of Reviewing: A Report, A Response
Professor Linda Hutcheon recently gave a talk at the Toronto Public Library discussing the ethics of reviewing. Since I have a fairly unconventional approach to reviewing books, I was very interested in what she had to say. This post is a (not very brief) summary of Hutcheon’s richly nuanced and insightful talk and my response to it in relation to the book reviewing I do on this blog.
Hutcheon began by discussing some prolific novelists’ takes on reviewers and the reviewing process.
- Virginia Woolf makes the distinction between critics and reviewers by saying that “The critic dealt with the past and with principles; the reviewer took the measure of new books as they fell from the press.”1 For her, this inevitably meant that the critic took their role much more seriously, whereas reviewers were pressed for space and were often in a hurry, not lavishing the kind of effort and dedication required for in-depth commentary. Hutcheon pointed out, however, that reviews were anonymous at the time that Woolf penned this essay, and it was afterwards that reviewing became professionalized.
- According to George Orwell,
The prolonged, indiscriminate reviewing of books is a quite exceptionally thankless, irritating and exhausting job. It not only involves praising trash . . . but constantly INVENTING reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feelings whatever. The reviewer, jaded though he may be, is professionally interested in books, and out of the thousands that appear annually, there are probably fifty or a hundred that he would enjoy writing about. . . . The rest of his work, however conscientious he may be in praising or damning, is in essence humbug. He is pouring his immortal spirit down the drain, half a pint at a time.2
- Kurt Vonnegut famous for saying that “Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel or a play or a poem is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae or a banana split.”3
Hutcheon then proceeded to lay out three broad categories of reviewers, defining them in ways that ranged from the highly practical to the highly amusing:
The executioner is the destroyer of reputations and of sales. They undertake conscious or semiconscious search-and-destroy missions sand establish their reputations by what they like or dislike. Anonymity on the web makes this easier. “Less ethically defensible,” Hutcheon qualified, “but easier.”
The louse is a small, but still nasty and irritating threat. “Lice” include those who don’t put much effort into the review, at times merely recounting the book’s plot. The louse can also be a narcissistic replacer who insinuates that they could have written something better, or makes the review about themselves rather than the book. (Guilty as charged?) The most serious kind of louse, according to Hutcheon, is the one who claims fairness but carries some hidden agenda or conflict of interest.
The star maker is the reviewer who prides herself in discovering big names, often continuing to advocate for them. This is the place where reviewing and fan cultures overlap.
All in all, reviewers function as what Hutcheon elegantly calls “spokespeople for values of a community.” They’re jurors rather than judges, and they are creators of educated taste.
Taste, a quality good reviewers are presumed to possess, is a curious thing that is not necessarily innate. To shed light on the qualities that comprise such an aesthetic sensibility, Hutcheon cited David Hume’s theory of taste. “Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to this valuable character.”4 To this list, Hutcheon says she would add another important quality: a deep love for the art form being reviewed in order to “root the authority they claim to have as reviewers.”
Hutcheon said that as a professional literary critic and an amateur restaurant critic, she has an increasing interest in the revolution that reviewing is currently undergoing. She believes that there is is a consensus on the fact that people who follow and read reviews want the book reviewer to be as knowledgeable about books as, say, a restaurant reviewer is about cooking.
But what are we to make of such a standard today, the heyday of crowdsourced reviewing, a day when when one can be a reviewers simply by virtue of having read a book? We now have the faceless sea of thousands of reviewers on Amazon and reviewing sites such as Goodreads and Librarything. The economic viability of professional reviewing is, well, no more: professional circulations are now scrapping their dedicated review sections, laying off full-time reviewers and contracting the work to freelancers.
Another phenomenon that’s come to dominate reviewing is the “positive cult of personality” of the reviewer, such as popular celebrities like Oprah Winfrey. Celebrities in any field are not only allowed to air their personal opinions; those opinions are validated by audiences because of their celebrity status. While this in itself is not a negative aspect, it still affects demand of expertise in the professional reviewer.
Publishers are now recognizing that respected and established bloggers are perhaps better vehicles of communicating the worthiness of a book than printed advertisements. However, Hutcheon notes that bloggers serve more of a “narrowcasting” rather than “broadcasting” function. The latter can be done only by means of a reputable and a widely-circulated periodical.
Now we get to the ethics part, or what I like to call the ‘shoulds.’ Recognizing that “all reviewing can coexist” while catering to different needs, Hutcheon believes that
- Reviewers have a responsibility both to the reader and to the work, so they must ensure that their review is about these things and not about themselves.
- Reviewers should acknowledge the place they are coming from. I take this to mean that since some degree of bias and one person’s certain experiences of a topic inevitably shape a review, the reviewer should be cognizant of that bias and address it however possible.
- Brevity, cogency, speed, and wit are especially important in electronic book reviews.
- The book and writer should be given the benefit of serious consideration as opposed to the benefit of the doubt.
- The most valued reviews are those that provide added value about the author or subject(s) of the book.
So where does this leave me?
Do I have the credentials to do book reviews? I’m not quite sure an undergraduate degree in literature suffices, since literary theory can often cloud one’s discussion of a book’s subject matter. And I certainly don’t read, quantitatively, nearly as much as I should. Although life can feel awfully strange when I’m in between books, my love for books is not as deep as my love for worthy content. I’d rather read one obscure book and be changed by it for the better than read twenty bestsellers and have them not affect me at all.
I don’t give negative criticism for the mere sake of it. I feel a deep personal obligation to balance honesty with a sense of humanity and connectedness both Muslim and non-Muslim writers. If I find something outright bad (as in the case of Empire Falls or Twilight) I would usually put a two-sentence review on Goodreads, and leave it at that. Most ‘bad’ books aren’t worth my attention, and I’ll be the first to admit that if I find myself tempted to do an especially incisive review of a book I didn’t like, I’m far more likely to be using the book as a punching bag for other personal issues I am wrangling with. So tempting as it is to do negative-adjective packed, nuanced critique of why a certain character or plot line doesn’t work, I have to remind myself that I’m not in the business of breaking hearts or spreading misery. I also have to remind myself that karma can be a real bitch.
What I will freely and unashamedly take credit for is that I always honestly acknowledge the place I come from. I am guilty of making the books about me and sometimes meander into topics only tangentially related to books, but by doing so I try and demonstrate how a reader–in my case, a female Muslim who considers herself a global citizen–reads books and is changed by them.
A blog, while lacking the “broadcasting” element, serves as an excellent way of exploring such a phenomenon. Since I’m not accountable to anyone but myself, I can “review” whichever way I please. And I daresay that those who read and follow me do so not just because they are interested in the books I review, but because they value my insight.
So perhaps I’m not a reviewer in the strictest sense of the term. I don’t really do justice to the book on its own terms. I cannot help but wonder, though: am I a changing breed of a reviewer, or am I something different altogether?