Do Book Critics Need a Code of Ethics?

The National Book Critics Circle is trying to establish best practices for their industry

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At BookExpo America, the annual publishing-industry convention held in New York City‘s Javits Convention Center, most of the attention falls on books and authors: publishing-company booths fill the massive space, advertising upcoming titles and offering a chance for some authors to meet booksellers and readers. Downstairs, at this year’s show (running through June 1), the convention continues with conferences and panel discussions—one of which convened the morning of May 30 to discuss the ethical standards in book reviewing.

It was a topic that, because of one obvious reason, provoked lots of spirited debate, As of now, book reviewers have no set of guiding principles. Sure, publications and individual writers have vague ideas about what’s okay, but the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) has not adopted a set of ethical guidelines. Yet. After conducting a survey of members of the industry—the data from which will be available in the fall—and holding events like the BEA panel, the NBCC will issue its ethical best practices.

In the mean time, there’s lots to debate.

“It’s kind of the wild west these days,” said moderator Marcela Valdes, who serves on the NBCC board of directors. As print book reviews are trimmed and amateur, online review sites prosper, the lack of clarity about what’s acceptable for a legit book review has become clearer than ever.

(MORE: Our Not-So-Secret Insider Reports from BookExpo 2013)

For one thing, even the words that might be used need definitions. In the world of criticism, where opinion is key, what does it mean to be objective? Maureen Corrigan, a participant and the book critic for NPR’s Fresh Air, clarified that objectivity, impartiality and fairness are three very different things: a critic can be honest and up-front about her biases without abandoning her personal taste. The survey (a few tidbits of which were revealed at the panel) also revealed that different people have different ideas about which part of a reviewer’s background would cause him to be automatically biased.

As panel participant and literary agent Eric Simonoff pointed out, the survey respondents were upset about “logrolling” —the practice of blurbs or reviews written by friends or colleagues of the author. But what really annoys writers (and agents and editors) is when a nonfiction book review is assigned to another nonfiction writer working in the same realm (history, politics, cooking, whatever)—and likely with an agenda that deviates from — or is outright in ideological disagreement with — the book being reviewed.

What about critics who refuse to review things they hate?

Among survey respondents, almost two-thirds (62.6 percent) said that was acceptable, with 26.8 percent objecting  (and the rest still unsure). “Why kill something that will die a natural death?” asked one respondent, in a comment read out loud at the conference. Simonoff concurred, noting that the smaller number of reviews published these days means there’s diminished value in non-recommendations, and that no review today carries the weight of a scathing review in the not-so distant past. Lorin Stein, Paris Review editor and another panel participant, disagreed.

Other topics of conversation included the importance of a reviewer coming from the same culture as the author—even if you spend a lot of time making those match-ups, noted New York Times Book Review editor Parul Sehgal, you never know if it’ll make a difference—and what can be done about the spam-like qualities of Amazon reviews.

As for hard-and-fast rules of book-review ethics? The only things the panelists could agree on were to be honest, fair and forthcoming, and to take the book on its own terms. Beyond that, we’ll have to stay tuned for the fall.