A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

Bulletin from the Reviewer Wars

on September 26, 2013

Just like her, he was in a profession where ethics and trust didn’t always overlap. Professional ethics for her [a journalist] meant telling a story in the most readable way to inform and entertain her readers. Professional ethics for him [a lawyer] meant aggressively advocating for his client, protecting him…

From “One for Each Night” by Judith Arnold

I don’t generally call myself a “writer” but in fact, I spend a great deal of time writing. I write, I edit, I polish, I polish, I polish… just like a “real” writer. I even get paid for it sometimes.

This quote made me think… maybe what I am is closer to being a journalist. Except that I deal in a world of subjectivity, while journalism is supposed to be objective. (Though often doesn’t pull it off.) Interestingly enough, the book reviewers who get the most respect are those who review in the spirit of objectivity, claiming to know what’s good or bad by standard, universal principles — something which those of us who review romance are often loath to do.

But no matter what slot I fit into as a reviewer, I do have a professional code that’s important to me. I think most reviewers do, although their codes will vary widely. And I think that’s what often gets lost in the “authors vs. reviewers” war that keeps springing up on the internet. We’re having a conflict of professional ethics. It’s not written out for us as it is for lawyers or doctors, so our codes can be anything. For some people, it’s about trying to help an author’s career, and they don’t understand how anyone could feel differently. For me, it’s closer to what Arnold describes above — telling a story in a readable way to inform and entertain. Arnold was talking about factual stories, of course, and so am I — because my opinions are facts to me. By that I don’t mean that they’re objectively true and no one can disagree, nor that they’re immovable and unchangeable. But they exist — the fact that I read a book and found it off-putting or badly written is something that happened, and denying it is a form of lying.

The other night I was thinking about a review I’d written. It was harsh, no question, yet I didn’t see how I could have honestly written it any other way.  At that moment, Dorothy Sayer’s mystery Gaudy Night popped into my head. Without spoilers, one of its primary themes is the tension between intellectual honesty and personal motivations.

“You couldn’t possibly have done anything else,” said Miss Edwards.
“Of course not. A man as undependable as that is not only useless, but dangerous. He might do anything.”

They’re talking here about someone who deliberately lied about a fact in a scholarly journal, for the sake of his career. A very insignificant error to some people, yet the ultimate sin to a group of academics.  Their professional work is based on seeking answers. How could you trust any other work done by such a person? What might he do to his field of study?

Books are my field of study, and they matter to me. How can you trust a book reviewer whose code isn’t about honesty? Why would you even want to?

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4 responses to “Bulletin from the Reviewer Wars

  1. Lynn Spencer says:

    Completely agree. I know some folks look at book reviewing differently, but I see it as reporting as objectively as possible about my experience reading a book. I sometimes try to explore what it is I'm bringing to the table as I read that makes me perceive themes or character types a certain way, but at the end of the day, I can't pretend that everything I read is worth recommending.

  2. willaful says:

    Good point, what we bring to the table is an important element too.

  3. Liz Mc2 says:

    I love this, and not just because you referenced Gaudy Night. When I review or reflect on books for an audience, I definitely think about my responsibility to my readers, the book, and my own experience of reading. I don't think of it as objectivity, but honesty about my subjective experience and perhaps some of the things (like my experience of the author, positive or negative) that might color that experience.I agree that a lot of the online conflicts over what someone called "citizen reviews" have to do with competing ideas about what, and whom, a review is for. Is it a marketing tool? Feedback for the author? A conversation among readers about the book? A tool to help readers make consumer decisions?

  4. willaful says:

    I'm thinking now of a quote I can't quite remember, but it was something about — don't criticize me for reading novels, I'm trying to create a life. Isn't it lovely to have other people's words or worlds to borrow on occasion? (With attribution, of course.) And especially nice when your friends know them too. I really should read more outside the genre, I'm missing out!I guess for me, reviews are largely meant to be a conversation among readers. I have no intention of being feedback for the author — in fact I hate it when I sense that authors have gotten self-conscious about what they write. I don't mind being used as a marketing tool if it's done honestly, but it's not a game I want to play myself. And as a tool to help readers make decisions — ack! I love when it works out and one of my reviews helps someone successfully find or avoid a book, but it's too much to take on as a goal. Here, at least — I do see it as a goal when I write for other blogs, and I put a lot more effort into those reviews.

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Miss Bates is the loquacious spinster from Austen's Emma. No doubt she read romances ... here's what she would have thought of them.

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