Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Basic ethics of the literary book review

It’s a conundrum. We literary writers frequently publish on small presses, and it can be hard to catch the attention of major review outlets, like Publisher’s Weekly or Kirkus Reviews

Poets have it worse than writers of other genres. Kirkus, for instance, doesn’t even review poetry except for pay—currently starting at $425. But that doesn’t mean it’s an easy feat for a prose literary title on a small or university press to get traction.

But aside from the major outlets, it’s hard to find anyone to review our titles, even in more small-press-friendly litmags. Often it seems that the same small-press titles get all of the attention, and I’m not sure that the quality of the writing is the reason. A standout title or a timely theme can be just as big as factors.

Make no mistake: We want reviews because we want readers. Our hard work demands that we find an audience for the books we publish; sometime it seems as though the stories, poems, and essays themselves stand up and demand to be heard.

But our desire to find reviewers can lead us to what the journalist in me regards as missteps—practices I’d caution us away from.

Several of my social media circles are inhabited by authors, and every now and then, someone will chime in with the idea that members trade reviews—a you-do-me-and-I’ll-do-you kind of arrangement.

This is a very efficient plan; two books get reviewed where none before did. I find that it’s not so hard to publish a review. Many magazines that are too low-budget to pay reviewers are hungry for this kind of free content, and as long as their length and style guidelines are followed, they’ll provide a hungry yes to a review submission.

The problem is that a reader trusts a reviewer to be honest and candid about a book’s merits. Even if some journals publish only recommendations instead of reviews, the reader believes that a recommendation is based on literary merit, and not tit for tat.

In my undergraduate journalism education, a course on reviewing was a required part of the curriculum. Mostly we all went to a classroom at night and watched classic movies—All About Eve and Citizen Kane, for instance—and then wrote cheesy reviews of them. (Two thumbs up for Casablanca!) But in between installments from the Golden Age of Hollywood, my classmates and I actually did get a thorough grounding in this sort of criticism. What was drilled into us from start to finish was our ethical responsibility to our readers.

In short, a review is an opinion—ideally a very informed and educated opinion. I have no palate to speak of, so it would be ridiculous for me to write a review of the cuisine in a high-end restaurant. I just like to eat, and a lot of things taste really good to me. I’m simple like that.

A restaurant reviewer should know quite a bit about kitchen chemistry and processes, and about culinary history and trends. A nice meal costs a little more than this consumer can easily afford, so when I do go out, I’d like to know what I’m getting into, and whether Restaurant A is a better choice than Restaurant B. Reviews can make a difference in how I spend my (meager) resources.

Ditto with movie reviews. A reviewer who understands storytelling, cinematography, acting, and culture can help me to make a good choice when I finally pay a babysitter and venture out to one of the two or three non-animated, non-superhero movies I’m likely to see in a given year.

Let’s presume that literary reviewers haven’t already lost their credibility with readers through back-scratch-trading with writers and favor-currying with publishers. Don’t we sort of look to book reviews in the same way? Something like half a million books are published each year in the U.S., and a new release can run in the $20 range. Where do we put our cash? Attention from reviewers can alert us to and pique our interest in new releases, and they can also help us choose from among all of the books vying for our attention. When these writers abuse our trust, there’s a sense that they’re playing fast and loose with our money.

Another ethical concern reviewers must be impartial. Just because a fellow writer is a friend doesn’t mean that the person has written a top-notch memoir. The opposite—the polar opposite—may be true. But we don’t trash our friends—that’s a different sort of baseline ethics, one from universe that is larger than the literary world.

But we shouldn’t review our friends. Even if we have the sort of near-superhuman power to be impartial, we must avoid the appearance of impartiality. Readers trust that we’re not beholden to the people whose work we’re reviewing, whether by money or love or common interest.

Along similar lines, a reviewer is ethically bound to be honest. We shouldn’t downplay flaws in a book, just as we shouldn’t be more effusive in our praise than the work merits. We should aim for accuracy in description and honesty in assessment. 

Additionally, a reviewer should be educated and informed, so that the assessment of the reviewer matters. When an impartial, honest, well-read reviewer offers effusive praise, it means something.

I should mention that some magazines shy away from negative reviews. After all, a book of poetry from a small press is pretty much destined to be ignored by the larger culture; there’s no sense in a journal kicking it when it’s down. I don’t actually object to this practice; why not recommend good books instead of blasting bad ones? The danger is that a reviewer might adapt an assessment to score the publication, rather than choosing to review books that merit a strong review.

As the author of one full-length poetry collection, with another on the way, I can attest that a positive review feels incomparably good. I appreciated the handful of reviews that appeared in literary publications, but I also loved seeing what my friends thought when they posted customer reviews in places like Amazon and Goodreads. 

I wish we had a vibrant reviewing culture—one in which authors don’t have to form secret reviewing circles for their books to get a little attention. Maybe instead of making pledges to one another, we should make a promise to literature that we’ll pay attention and spread the word.



  1. I run into the same thing as a novelist. And Amazon tries to police *for* us and often does it badly, removing a review just because the writer and reviewer have a social media connection, for example.

    Rather than *not* reviewing my friends, I prefer to just be honest that this is my friend I am reviewing. In *any* review I give, I try to be balanced, listing the strengths alongside my complaints, or recognizing that something that doesn't work for me may be just fine for a reader who doesn't share my particular pet peeves.

    Part of what always worked about a Siskel and Ebert review, for example, is that readers knew the reviewers (at least through their body of work) and you knew if you tended to agree with them when it came to quality or not. Reviews are not journalism, they are inherently subjective: opinion. So, I find it more helpful to understand WHY someone liked to disliked something on a personal level than to read a review that tries to pretend theirs any objectivity in reacting to art.

    @mirymom1 from
    Balancing Act

    1. Sounds like you've given the matter some thought, which, of course, is the key to being ethical in our actions. <3