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.
“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?