BEA Panel Report: Ethics in Book Reviewing, Part One

It was originally billed as a conversation between Carlin Romano and John Leonard. The prospect of seeing these two dutiful and distinguished critics discuss a subject as important as book reviewing ethics was enough to secure my attendance. Then more names were added, including Sam Tanenhaus, who showed his clear commitment to ethics not long ago by having John Dean review Mark Felt’s book, the dignified David Ulin, the often needlessly maligned Francine Prose, and the Hitch himself. Then the operation was mysteriously taken over by the NBCC and John Freeman became “introducer.” Which, I suppose, is a bit like all those fourth-tier actors who got offed during Police Squad‘s opening credits. But no matter.

Before the panel began, I saw John Freeman outside the room. There had been an offer to meet for drinks to discuss our differences and come to some civil consensus, which Freeman had rebuffed. Freeman never had the decency, much less the masculinity implied by his surname, to say yes or no. Such is the Freeman Paradox, which doesn’t subscribe to Lincoln’s advice about keeping your enemies close. Only days later, during the Sunday morning hysteria-as-panel depicting a “crisis,” John Freeman publicly declared into the microphone (three times by my count, although I showed up late: the tally may have been higher) that it was essential to have all voices represented. Well, not my voice. And I’m an NBCC member. I raised my hand for a good twenty minutes at this second Freeman-attended panel. I should also note that in response to the aforementioned drink invite, Freeman forwarded my email to Yahoo Customer Care, as if I was some garden-variety spammer.

Some of this needless passive aggression on Freeman’s part may explain a few pedantic preoccupations on my part. But I enter it into the public record in the interest of total transparency, an editorial quality that Freeman appears incapable of.

But I’m nothing if not a tenacious guy and I figured this was an opportunity to get a détente started.

“It’s a pleasure meeting you again,” I said, alluding to our previous attendance in high school.

“Wh…wh…who are you?” said the baffled NBCC president.

I told him my name. Freeman’s eyes widened. He began to shake. He stepped back a half step. He wanted desperately to run away. I certainly hadn’t stabbed anybody. But that’s what Freeman’s reaction reminded me of: a bystander witnessing a shocking crime scene.

“I have nothing against you. So why are we at war?” I asked. “Can you not agree that we’re on the same side?”

“Uh…yeah,” said Freeman. “We’re both at the same panel.”

“Then why don’t you return my emails? We should be working together.”

“I…uh…uh…I get a lot of email.”

I do too, John.

Freeman then scurried away. It was a decidedly unpresidential run.

* * *

At least Bud got somewhere with Michael Dirda (I can also attest that Dirda is an opinionated listener rather than a literary fascist). But I mention all this because Freeman simply will not respond to email or face-to-face efforts at resolution. I have tried everything. I confess that I’m a bit angry about this. Not because I give two shits about whether Freeman hates me or not, but because his failure to take a position or to have a civilized conversation with a perceived opponent is deeply dishonest. At the LBC Party, I was very happy to meet Marydell, who has taken some of my posts and positions to task. And that’s fine. I don’t expect people to agree with everything I have to say. And it’s always beneficial to have people examine where my arguments fall flat or where I am uninformed. A good thinker accepts those impassioned people kind enough to quibble with his arguments. The kind of rebellion that Jefferson liked now and then.

I will eventually summarize this panel, but in considering book reviewing ethics as a whole, I must likewise ask whether it is ethical for a president of an organization like the NBCC to remain so stubborn, so unilateral, and so clearly incapable of taking a stand (yes or no for drinks, John?) when one of his members is simply trying to clear the air.

This all comes out right now because, over the course of BEA, I was astonished to learn that writers and critics I admire, people who are far smarter than me and who can write far better than I can, read my blog on a daily basis and have apparently done so for quite a while. In writing this post, I may be misperceived as a hubristic bastard. But I hope this gets at some larger truth about how ridiculous this mess with Freeman is, how the print vs. online “battle” is a grand sham predicated on needless dick wars, and how Freeman (and his older and oilier counterpart Sam Tanenhaus) display the kind of personality disorder traits that aren’t helpful at all.

But more later.


  1. I think it’s time to stop worrying about him. You’ve tried to extend the olive branch, and he doesn’t want to take it. It happens.

  2. Every time you feel the need to think about John Freeman, pick up a volume of Proust instead. Ultimately, you’ll feel much better.

  3. Ed,

    I know why Freeman rebuffed you. Instead of inviting him for a drink you should have simply sent a fruit basket, as you did with the Time critic who lambasted you in print. Try this next time.


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