BEA Panel Report: Ethics in Book Reviewing, Part Two

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Panel: Ethics in Book Reviewing: The More Things Change…? (June 1, 2007)

“Introducer”: John Freeman

Moderator: Carlin Romano

Panelists: Christopher Hitchens, Francine Prose, John Leonard, Sam Tanenhaus and David Ulin.

Hitch looked bored and a bit pissed. He shuffled onto the dais like a big and buoyant oil tanker making a slow turn into a harbor. He was the first to sit down. The other panelists seemed to instinctively understand that Hitch was a man you gave a seat to. He contemplated putting on a pair of sunglasses, only to abandon this prospect, perhaps because the Book TV cameras didn’t come with piercing Klieg lights. Whatever the case, I must echo Carolyn’s sentiments that one must experience the Hitch in person, whether one agrees with him or not. Christopher Hitchens is, in an odd way, the literary community’s answer to Richard Dawson. One wonders why nobody has thought to have him host a highbrow game show, if such a program could be seriously contemplated.

Various newspaper book sections were scattered around the needlessly diminutive conference room, largely untouched by the crowd. Perhaps this was because the newspapers had been dissipated as if the sweltering room was a stand-in for a sweltering subway train. It didn’t help that the Sunday supplements from many weeks ago. Perhaps people had read these reviews already. It was, in my view, a bit embarrassing, resembling more of a mess to be picked up rather than an opportunity to read meaningful reviews.

After Freeman’s mumbling intro, which had the sole distinction of repeating the same two points that Freeman has said in nearly every media conduit for the past month, Carlin Romano began the panel by reading off a list of questions that had been promulgated to NBCC members. This had the unfortunate feel of a soporific Senate confirmation hearing, and I initially feared the worst. Thankfully Romano displayed an endearing feistiness over the course of the conference: later, in relation to Michiko Kakutani and, at the third panel I attended, taking many of the panelists to task for being spineless middle managers kowtowing to corporate imperialism. Some had opined later that Romano had slept on the wrong side of the bed, but I was more relieved that there still remained a few arduous souls over the age of forty employed at newspapers who still give a damn.

Hitchens remarked that he never wanted to be the editor of anything, that he knows nothing about podcasting, and quoted the Book of Job, “Oh that mine enemy would write a book.” On this latter point, Hitch pointed to another critic (my illegible notes read “Noah Malcolm,” but I cannot find any online reference to an author named Noah Malcolm), who accused him of plagiarism. Eventually, Hitch got around to reviewing the man’s book.

Hitch quibbled with the “permanent affectation of integrity,” because he pointed that you could diagram cross-hatchets of blurbs and easily see how everyone was connected to each other. He observed that he had an upcoming review of On Chesil Beach in the Atlantic Monthly. (He observed later that he would likely not review a book of McEwan’s if he didn’t care for it.)

John Leonard pointed out that the aspiring freelance reviewer really doesn’t have any choice in the books he reviews and that any individual book could carry up to seven different approaches in how to review it. Leonard also observed that it is essential for a good editor to mix up her coverage to stay in business. He referred to his editorial stint at The Nation as “my playpen,” observing that he had the right to be intemperate and that “reviewers never do what you tell them to do.” Leonard stated that since he was now 68 years old, nobody could tell him what to do. He was no longer interested in hit pieces, because he didn’t want to alienate himself from others. “Who else am I supposed to be friends with?” asked Leonard. “People who talk about movies and real estate.”

Leonard considered a critic to be “a friend of the mind.” He didn’t see the value of applying grades to books. “I’m not a grammar school teacher.” He was also very self-effacing, noting that he could never be as smart as Richard Powers and that because there’s so little money in this business, he felt that hostile book reviews or reviewers who engaged in performance art had no place in a book review. “If you want to make a spectacle of yourself, join the circus!” He also noted the importance of genre, noting that any reviewers who ignored these were unimaginative.

Francine Prose revealed that she sent back books that she didn’t like. “Why should I ruin this life?” she asked. She also confessed that when asked to review a book by an acquaintance, Observer editor Adam Begley had essentially asked, “Have you ever had an affair with the guy?” and that ethical conflicts along these lines were “a slightly bogus idea.” She objected to book reviews as a substitute for Consumer Reports and noted that a book reviewer’s primary obligation is to “write interestingly about the book.” Prose suggested that it was unethical to write about a book boringly and that boring critics were no friends to the readers.

And then came Sam Tanenhaus, who was sweating profusely before the panel started. This oily sheen, as it turned out, suited Tanenhaus to a tee, as he appeared to view ethics largely as an afterthought. He reminded me very much of George Bush in the way that he offered a nervous congratulatory smile after praising himself over some pedantic matter and in the way that he raced nervously out of the room before the Q&A session could begin, thus avoiding any deep probing of his sketchy points. Tanenhaus suggested that when people talk about the ethics of reviewing, they are “covertly and overtly degrading the principles of criticism.” He cited a review by Toni Bentley that he had declined because Bentley had had lunch with the author. This was early in Tanenhaus’s career. So he said no. And Bentley ended up reviewing one of the books for the New York Review of Books. Tanenhaus claimed that the Bentley review could have run, had a disclaimer been included.

He cited the Jonathan Lethem review of On Chesil Beach as a “superb essay,” asking, “Who profits if Lethem doesn’t write it?”

These ethical questions became sleazier when Tanenhaus boasted of hiring Michael Kinsley to write a review of Christopher Hitchens’ book, “partly because he does know Christopher.” He also confessed that Franzen had sent him a note to review Alice Munro and that a review was assigned as a result. I had hoped to ask if John Dean was assigned the Mark Felt book for similar reasons. (And, rather interestingly, Levi Asher posed a variation of this question to those who remained during the Q&A session.) But it was not to be. When Tanenhaus bolted from 1E06, he shot a nervous glance at me and sprinted away as if I was a belligerent tax auditor.

Rather alarmingly, at the end of this introduction, Tanenhaus confessed that he was told by top brass, “You’ll know who your friends are when you leave this job.” He said that this was no problem. He had no friends to begin with.

David Ulin was next. He was clearer, more confident and more relaxed than Tanenhaus. And I have a pretty good hunch that he has friends.

Ulin noted that people are “not looking at [ethics] from the right filter.” He said that he tells all of his reviewers to disclose first. One LATBR critic noted that he turned down a book because Knopf had turned down his last novel. Ulin noted that the most important question was whether a reviewer could write. “That’s about as objective as it can get.” Can a reviewer take a book on its own terms? Ulin described a book review as a three-dimensional conversation between reader, writer, and reviewer, and that the third party was the most important. Does the reviewer have something to say?

Ulin said that it matters if the reviewer is familiar with the career of a writer, noting that he wouldn’t assign a reviewer to cover the new Don DeLillo book if the reviewer wasn’t familiar. He also draws the line at friends reviewing friends, and stated that it was important for a book review section to be honest. He said that it was an ethical obligation of a book review section to publish negative reviews, but that the negativity shouldn’t be gratuitous. He also said a book review section should also champion writers. He cited a recent Lydia Davis career piece as an example of this.

After these five introductions, Romano then interjected, pointing to the Michiko Kakutani review of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, which was, in Romano’s view, terrible. Even the sentences that Kakutani quoted were leagues beyond Kakutani’s shrill prose style. He then asked how one could be honestly negative if the reviewer doesn’t like the book.

Hitch said that if he hadn’t liked the McEwan novel, he would decide not to write the review. But he pointed out that although Martin Amis is a friend, he felt the need to publicly respond because “there was so much venom towards me.”

Leonard observed, “You don’t have to review every book that comes along.” He felt that it was imperative for a critic to have a record of negative reviews, so that a reputation might be established. A negative review could help. Leonard again noted that he “no longer had the taste to tear someone into shreds.” He also noted that in some cases, reviewers could be influenced by other factors. “We may be drunk, divorcing, depressed.” This is not being fair to the book. He recalled a previous time in which he was killing himself with alcohol and was seeing reveries that fit right into his reviews. These had nothing whatsoever to do with the books itself. He had to take a break from the books so that he could assess honestly again.

Prose said it was quite simple: “All you have to do is guide.”

Hitchens noted that praising a book faintly involved some legerdemain. He pointed that people said, “You must be very proud” or “You’ve done it again” in the film industry, but that the phrase one should use in the book industry is “To Mr. Crace’s many admirers…”

Prose noted that she had turned down an assignment to review The Historian and it had sold anyway.

Ulin said that turning down books had an impact on whether they could be properly covered. Because the newspaper business is time-sensitive, a book cannot be reassigned if it is turned down by a critic.

Romano observed that previous NYTBR editor Mike Levitas had a hard rule: Nobody could ever request a book from the Times and openly pondered why book reviewers didn’t go after authors in the same manner that they went after politicians. Leonard pointed out that there was a considerable difference between politicians who were in a position of power and a first novelist, because the latter does not run the world. Therefore, the first novelist does not deserve rudeness in culture.

Ulin observed again that it was important to tell the truth. While he wasn’t so enamored with hit pieces, he did say that negative reviews were essential in this mission. He likes to assign books to reviewers who say what they think and who don’t pull their punches. He also quibbled with the idea that it’s somehow anti-intellectual to be effusive and that essays that engaged with enthusiasm, whether pro or con, were essential.

Tanenhaus, who was clearly being outclassed and outthought by these folks, responded with the tepid, “We publish some very, very tough reviews.” He also complained that readers hadn’t noticed when certain authors had been assigned to certain reviews. Indeed, it was this notion of the book reviewer as a kind of bauble to be collected in a Charles Foster Kane-like warehouse that seemed to be the thing that most excited Sammy Boy. Perhaps some readers hadn’t noticed, Mr. Tanenhaus, because the reviews in question aren’t particularly compelling?

The first hour was finished. Tanenhaus and Hitch bolted. And since this is a damn long post, I’ll conclude what happened in the subsequent half hour with a third part.

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2 Comments

  1. “He shuffled onto the dais like a big and buoyant oil tanker making a slow turn into a harbor.”

    That’s the best sentence you’ve written since I’ve been reading your site. I wasn’t there, but it seems so absolutely true.

    So NYC writers/reviewers are chummy logrollers. Not surprising in itself so much, but mildly surprising how readily they own up to it. Here’s to hoping Ed retains his left coast chip on his shoulder. These guys need a corrective and online media is it.

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