The “Ethics in Book Reviewing” Panel: Postcard From New York City, Part 2

Jen A. Miller

Oh that mine enemy were to write a book.

It’s a line, paraphrased from the Book of Job, that was uttered last Friday morning at BookExpo America by Christopher Hitchens—author of the recently published book God Is Not Great—as the motto from his earlier book reviewing days. It was an odd sentiment to be heard at a panel called “Ethics in Book Reviewing: The More Things Change…?” but it certainly made the crowd, which was packed in and spilling out of the conference room, laugh out loud. And it set the tone for the rest of the panelists’ comments.

Not everyone talked about how they wished they could review their enemies’ books, but the panelists, which included Carlin Romano from the Philadelphia Inquirer and David L. Ulin from the Los Angeles Times, did talk about how and why it is possible to review books by friends and colleagues and still, as they say, stay within unwritten ethical boundaries and produce fair reviews. They also talked about why it’s nearly impossible to not write about people you know.

“Who else am I supposed to be friends with? I’ve been in this business forty years,” said John Leonard of Harpers Magazine, who suggested that it’s sometimes better to review someone you know. “Who knows them better? I know every word.”

Author Francine Prose and Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the New York Times Book Review, spoke of the relationship between author and reviewer not as a two-way conversation, but as a service to readers. “What we look at first is the reader,” said Tanenhaus.

“The most unethical thing is to write a boring review,” said Prose.

One might not expect ethics to be such a big draw at a book publishing convention, but the event was heavily promoted by the National Book Critics Circle as a venue for talking about the shrinking space given to book reviews in American newspapers. The conversation stayed on the topic of ethics, however, with Hitchens and Leonard sharing anecdotes about writing enemies and friends, book review disasters, and war stories from the book review trenches.

“Ethics in book reviews is such small potatoes compared to corruption in culture at large,” said Leonard. “And there’s no money in it anyway.”