March 29th, 2011 / 11:43 am

Do (or should) book reviewers have any moral responsibilities? Does whether they’re getting paid or not influence this consideration?


  1. Josephpatrickwood

      I really like Rain Taxi’s point of view on this. NO knowing the authorl why waste time shitting on things when there are so many books worthy of attention atrophying? It’s one thing to be paid by NYT; quite another to carve time to write a review for a place out of dedication for the art.

      I want to review things that teach me something I hadn’t thought of or knew that was possible. I have turned back books to the review journal I did not like.

  2. T-Math

      Moral is a tricky word, but only because we make it one.

      I should start by saying that I just started reading John Gardner’s “On Moral Fiction” today, (because I recommend it, because I wanted to share my little instance of synchronicity, and because I want to be clear that I know I am not being original) and I would say that he would disagree vehemently with the idea that neither art nor the criticism that continues the communication of art are free of a distinct moral governance. This is where it gets tricky, though, because at this point, “moral” isn’t being used in reference to good or bad behavior, but is used more in line with a code a website might have for their discussion forum; like “keep the conversation moving,” or better yet “create with artistic vision instead of trying to convince somebody of an idea.” I haven’t finished the book, or spent a whole lot of time really digesting whether or not I agree wholly with Gardner, but at this point I am inclined to.

      As much as I like the idea of a critic making their own “art”, and I agree that the review doesn’t need to necessarily resemble what it is reviewing, I think that calling the review a piece of art goes a bit past criticism’s function, and loosens the definition of art (though art is, I think, a trickier word than moral). I know that I was floored when I read “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart” by David Foster Wallace, but I wouldn’t say that it was for anything but the fact that Mr. Wallace expressed vividly something deep that I was able to follow along with and agree with at a level that created a resonance from gained understanding and mutual feeling.

      I’ll quote Gardner here: “Criticism, when most interesting and vital, tends toward art, that is…[*] making up fictions about fictions. To make the concrete abstract is inescapably to distort. It turns emotional development into logical progression, artistic vision into thesis. The trouble is that whereas the artist’s fiction is complex beyond our capacity to express it, the critic’s fictions–art cleaned up and clarified, at worst reduced to what the critic considers its main point–can easily take on the authority of Right” (14).

      The critic, especially the artful critic, has a responsibility, then, to the art they are championing through their actions; the time and effort it takes to be a critic, paid or not. If the critic has ulterior motives and wants to falsely tout an unworthy work, yeah, sure, let them, but any discerning reader will likely be able to see through it, and that critic will rightly lose luster.

      * — I removed an allusion to a previous metaphor that doesn’t make sense out of context.

  3. letters journal

      Nobody seems to complain when popular works are devalued (ie. Foer, Franzen, et cetera).

  4. letters journal

      Yes, exactly.

  5. M. Kitchell


  6. alexisorgera

      You know, I think it’s probably a good idea as a publisher of reviews to make sure your reviewers don’t know the authors. Friend-reviews do tend to smack of nepotism. That said, I hate that! Most of my poet-friends, for instance, have become my friends because I came to love their work first. I seek people out whose work I respect, and I have a natural compulsion to write about writing that’s exciting to me. I like what Amy said about criticism being an art form in itself. Maybe I want to write in some new kind of framework, though. Writing about writing that isn’t necessarily considered criticism or review. That said, I’ve written some reviews, here even, of writing (and genres) I was unfamiliar with, and I’ve found that it’s much more intellectually rigorous work. I mean, you gotta think about that shit outside of any personal or biographical narrative framework. As Blake said, you really do have to take writing on its own terms when it’s unfamiliar territory.

  7. deadgod

      Well, it’s a balance, isn’t it? The object before one has its own material, formal, historical integrities, one understands; but part of one’s own ethical integrity is recognizing and accounting for one’s prejudices, for and against.

      It’s not that hard to be candid about one’s expectations and about the experience one had reading a book. Maybe it’s not so common that one’s experience reading a book is much interesting to other people, ha ha, but that’s a different topic from whether one can be clear about that experience itself.

  8. yrubmearbas

      My husband gets paid to write reviews for the L Mag and NY Times. He doesn’t get to chose what he reviews, which are what publicists are pushing or the editors have been handed, etc. When he reads a book he tries to find as many nice things as he can to say about it, mostly to be professional, and to avoid guilt and bad karma, but if he doesn’t mention the cons as well then he is threatening his credibility.

  9. deadgod

      I think the Foer-hate and Franzen-hate, while sometimes clothed in hipoisie I’m-not-a-member groupthink, is usually aggravated into passionate existence less by the books than by their popularity and the authors’ public holograms. People are angry/insulted/envious at/by/of popularity to the point of implacable sneer. The key in this discussion is whether Foer and Franzen, say, are damaged in their abilities to find appreciative audiences by the hate they routinely get in some forums; they seem still to be comfortably breathing.

  10. deadgod

      I’m against Oscar (and Pater, etc.) in this regard; I don’t think there is a wholly “own” art, a making that is outside of social, political-economic, and other frameworks – or webs – of responsibility.

      A critic chooses a narrower gauge than the piece she or he is reviewing: she or he has chosen this thing, and chosen to evaluate this thing. (- not that artists don’t narrow their scopes, or judge their ‘objects’, but rather that they do so with a ‘freedom’ that their critics have chosen (?) not to avail themselves of.)

      When you call “boring” a strong criterion for ‘not paying attention’, you might be indicating what other people would call a “moral” choice.

  11. deadgod

      Another example from that same NYRB of an entertaining and worth-doing scalpel-job is Bill McKibben’s, eh, critique of climate-change denial. Here’s a bit of his subtle ridicule:

      Yale University Press published a volume, The Lomborg Deception (2010), that checked every one of [Lomborg’s] footnotes [in The Skeptical Environmentalist] and found them regularly misleading. In his new book, Lomborg attempts to resuscitate his reputation, declaring that climate change is indeed at least a somewhat serious problem, and offering to show what course of action might best tackle it.

      McKibben’s skewering of Lomborg’s (and that of the makers of Cool It) fatuity and destructiveness are all the more entertaining and, I think, effective for its calm (albeit relentless) tone. There are lots of merchants who deserve vigorous debunking, though, as Whatisinevidence says, fiction is a different kind of ‘sale’.

  12. darby

      im with amy in that i think writing reviews is removed from the idea of morality. i hate the use of the word moral in this thread. you can say obligation, which i’ll still disagree with, but saying there is a moral obligation for entertainment to be talked about in some appropriate way is like saying there is a moral obligation for me to comment in this thread in some appropriate way. its on me if i lose twitter followers but no one is placing an obligation on me to maintain twitter followers, and if i was being paid to, no one is placing an obligation on me to keep my job. is writing fiction and/or about fiction and/or about anything a religion? like if we dont do it right god will smite us? is that the level that people here mean when you are saying morality? what entity are people envisioning as being the enforcer of the moral absolutes being placed on how we talk about make believe?

  13. Paternoster99

      the moral considerations of a critic should be this, and from this a bunch of other sub ‘this-es’: they must decide weather or not the book under review is worth the time of the reading public. of course, this is a stupid, subjective qualification that might be impossible to carry out when the reviewer is paid and he reviews books written by his friends. with the flood of tryuly shitty pieces of paper being peddled left and right as books now days begs the question, how;s a girl to know the difference? we (or I) as readers want (or should want) to read the best books we can get our undernourished hands on, and it is the reviewers job to help us out in this pursuit. of course, no one will ever agree with every review, but ad hominem horseshit or simple ‘it’s good, it sucks’ bullshit only muddy the waters further. reviews should be guides, not preachers of dogma, and the ethics of reviewing really just boils down to us readers’ ability to discern the glib from the sincere, and to use both as sign posts. but reviewers, to my mind, can steer an intellectual discourse far beyond what was intended in the first place into something profound. i think of sebald, in this case. corrupt reviewers (i cannot think of another word at the moment) are easy to spot. reviewing is an insightful, necessary enterprise, and the morons who use book reviews to jack off themselves or by proxy their friends are the easiest to spot and should just be ignored.

  14. Criticism and The Pale King | HTMLGIANT

      […] “souls who would shine”–which is, incidentally, my answer to Blake’s recent post. Answer: a critic should be critical, a problem which will be the challenge and measure of […]