Actually, It’s About Ethics in Book Reviewing

As I mentioned in a previous post, I appeared on a panel called “It’s Actually About Ethics: Reviewing the Work of Colleagues and Friends” at Readercon. That was last weekend. Scott Edelman recorded video of that panel, so you can see me in all my questionable glory. As you will see, I have a few suggestions about who you should and should not review.

The ethics of writing book reviews seems to be a topic of the moment. I have a number of links. Let’s start with my friend Natalie Luhrs and her comprehensive article on the subject in Uncanny Magazine. That’s a good starting point.

Jonathan McCalmont is concerned about reviewers’ critical agency and has some sharp observations about the role reviewers play: “Why do so many bloggers make it look as though they are working an extra job as unpaid interns in the entertainment industry?” The truth about book reviews is that while they’re ostensibly for readers, the audience that cares about them most is the publishing industry: booksellers, librarians, publicists—and most of all authors, who are the ones who do most of the linking to and retweeting of reviews.

I’m very mindful of the fact that reviewing is a cog in the literary-industrial complex, and that it takes great force of personality to resist falling into line with the demands of publicity. For an example of such force of personality, see James Nicoll, who has enough of a problem with reviewers taking money from authors (he does sponsored reviews on his website, but, critically, not from the authors of the books) that he’s leaving Romantic Times over their for-pay RT Review Source.

The ethical book reviewer, it seems to me, has to be prepared to act against their own pecuniary and social self-interest—giving a friend a bad review, turning down money, losing social capital or access to advance copies—in favour of the integrity of their reviewing. But the ethical book reviewer will not suffer if authors and publishers are also ethical. Ethics in book reviewing, in other words, isn’t only about reviewers.