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Anonymous Reviewing: A Review

A novelist and short-story writer (who shall not remain anonymous) on the dangers of unbylined reviews

- June 29, 2005

Bulletproof Girl, my second book and first story collection, received a flailing recently from Kirkus Reviews. The unbylined review deemed my writing "pat," my stories "flat" and the collection as a whole trivial for dealing with "overly familiar domestic issues." (I guess I should've seen that coming: Stories by women about women are by nature domestic, and therefore overly familiar; one might as well put the kitchen sink on the cover.)

There are some good arguments to be made for trade publications reviewing books anonymously. Nobody wants to read a review that is a thinly-veiled tool for self-advancement or a little back-slapping between friends. But anonymity causes as many problems as it solves, and I think reviewers—at least the professionals—should cut it out.

When the Kirkus review came out, it was painful to have my work dismissed—but equally painful was the thought of orders of Bulletproof Girl from libraries and booksellers disappearing with every withering word, and the worry that few consumer periodicals would decide to include it in their review plans as a result. Since the other four leading trades, Publisher's Weekly, Library Journal, and Booklist, did not weigh in at all, there was nothing to counteract that first negative review for nearly a month. In the meantime, since major Internet retailers like Amazon and Barnes & Nobles have licensing agreements to post trade reviews, I knew consumers would be able to read them as well.

While negative reviews are a reality, I didn't feel that this review was fair or accurate. So I found myself wondering about the reviewer's point of view, as I often do when reading reviews of other books. Given the "domestic" comment, was my reviewer male or female? What other books had this reviewer praised or disliked? What was his or her professional background? But of course, since Kirkus publishes unsigned reviews, I couldn't begin to answer any of these questions. To not be able to place the review in any kind of context in connection to the reviewer was both frustrating to me and a disservice to the people who use these reviews to make buying decisions for their customers.

Anonymous versus accountable
Anonymous reviews got some coverage in early 2004 when a computer glitch during the transferral of customer reviews from Amazon's U.S. site to its Canadian counterpart revealed the names of reviewers. The main fun was in finding out how many authors had resorted to touting their own books. But the result of the flap was that Amazon now vets postings for profanity, spoilers, and "spiteful remarks" and encourages reviewers to sign their reviews.

Why does Amazon want customers to attach their names to their reviews? As Jerome Weeks, books editor of the Dallas Morning News, put it in a 2004 article "Book Blurbs But No Names? For Shame," which discussed the Amazon glitch, "The real question is the implied moral challenge: Who are you to pass judgment on books?"

Weeks then makes a distinction between the consumer and professional reviewer. "Any reader will have his own opinions and can express them freely on Amazon. The more, the merrier (although it certainly helps if you can spell). But, contrary to popular belief, a review is not simply an opinion. A review is an act of persuasion, an argument."

And, he wonders, "Who knows what ax an anonymous critic may be grinding?"

When a reviewer's work is sanctioned by a branded publication, there's a more-than-implied legitimacy conferred upon the reviewer that may or may not in fact exist, and is impossible to verify when the reviewer is anonymous.

This is true whether the reviewer writes for a trade publication that is primarily intended for a specific audience, or whether he or she writes for a general-interest daily, as Weeks does. In a January 2005 Wall Street Journal rant on the practice of anonymous reviewing, "Oh Yeah? Says Who?," James Bowman, who is a critic for publications such as American Spectator and American editor for The Times Literary Supplement, quotes John Gross, former Times Literary Supplement editor, who ended that publication's policy of anonymity in 1974.

"'The case against anonymity is a relatively simple one,' wrote Mr. Gross at the time. 'There are many occasions on which a reader is entitled to ask on what authority a judgment or opinion is being advanced. There are even occasions when the whole import of a review depends on knowing the identity of the reviewer. Above all, critics should be prepared to be held directly responsible for what they write....I feel that the principle of accountability comes first.'"

Former Kirkus reviewer Jonathan Taylor wrote in a March 1999 column for The Stranger, a Seattle alternative weekly, about why he eventually quit writing book reviews for Kirkus as well as other publications. The frenzied pace, as well as the idea that a critic should be a disinterested judge, was what finally turned him off. "It denies the most powerful interest at work in a book reviewer, the one that can't be avoided—self-interest. Writing about books means juxtaposing yourself with literature, associating yourself with it." The cloak of anonymity only furthers this false sense of distance on the part of the reviewer.

As for his qualifications for the many reviews he wrote for Kirkus, "Even on those topics about which I had a formal education, it seemed that I'd probably forgotten too much of what I learned to bring any formal expertise to bear. I felt weird about my qualifications every week, but never for very long. At that pace, I didn't have much time to think before I had to email the review into oblivion and start the next book."

Another former reviewer I interviewed via email, who asked that her name not be used (I know, ironic since we're talking about anonymous reviews here, but bear with me), said that when she was writing reviews for Publisher's Weekly she "had almost no understanding of what PW was all about and certainly not even an inkling of the kind of weight a PW review can carry." Still, she tried to do justice to every book she was assigned, in spite of the frustrating lack of room to say much of substance within the allowed word limits. She felt that both the plot-summary-heavy review structure and extreme economy prevented "the kind of bone-to-pick, this-is-really-about-ME reviewing that makes me crazy."

Weeks asks, "So what gives anyone the right to review books—with authority?" After all, there's no degree in reviewing, no set career path. In addition to a track record of insight that can only been demonstrated over time, "The reviewer's read a lot of books, thought a lot about them, and can express his or her ideas effectively, entertainingly—and with newspapers—rapidly." But we can't determine any of this unless we know who the reviewer is.

Of the leading four trades, Booklist and Library Journal publish signed reviews. Publisher's Weekly editor-in-chief Sara Nelson and Kirkus Reviews editor Elaine Szewczyk offered similar reasons their publications' long traditions of publishing anonymous reviews: to put the focus on the author's book rather than the reviewer, to collect the various opinions of reviewers within a publication readers know and trust, and to allow reviewers complete freedom in saying exactly what they think without worrying about upsetting editors, publishers or authors.

Nelson says that using signed reviews might create too cozy a relationship between reviewer and reviewee. "Over time, even the most unfamous reviewer would start to be known, and publishers and editors might begin lobbying to get (or not get) a certain reviewer, depending on his or her attitudes in the past." Also, she adds, "Many reviewers have acknowledged that not signing the review gives them total freedom to say what they really think."

Szewczyk shares this point of view. "These days, many reviewers are authors themselves (or aspiring authors), and it's not hard to imagine a scenario in which a reviewer might deliver a soft opinion of a book for fear of alienating the book's author." Offering the does-this-dress-make-me-look-fat analogy, she explains, "Put it this way: X may think that Y's sweater is ugly, but it's not likely that X would admit as much if Y solicited X's opinion at, say, some random dinner party. If asked, X might bend the truth, responding, 'Oh, the sweater is fine.' That's human nature. Kirkus takes its responsibility to the book community seriously, and it's never been our job to be polite at the dinner party." She notes that Kirkus lists contributing reviewers' names in the inside cover of each issue—just not with their corresponding reviews.

I see their point: Anonymity means the reviewer has nothing to lose by writing a negative review, and nothing to gain by writing a positive one. Fair enough. But anonymity doesn't remove personal bias on the part of the reviewer—for or against certain authors, or certain types of books. It just cloaks bias behind a brand name, and is therefore untraceable for librarians and booksellers and the authors whose careers suffer or are nurtured as a result.

Related to this is the idea implicit in Szewczyk's ugly sweater analogy about people's willingness to be honest about bad news, whatever form it takes. Why do we assume that a negative—even nasty—review is somehow more honest, while a good review is only polite?

Since Nelson took the helm at PW, the publication has added one signature review per issue, and she says that's all they'll do for now. But, she adds, "The subject is raised and discussed from time to time, so I imagine we will be talking about it again in the future."

Szewczyk says that while there are no immediate plans to run bylines, "[But] I can't say that it would never happen."

Library Journal, in contrast, relies on 1,500 volunteer reviewers to produce the 5,000 to 6,000 signed reviews it distributes annually to a subscriber audience of over 20,000. Book-review editor Barbara Hoffert gives a different perspective on the value of anonymity in reviews. "Signoffs are important to give a review credibility; it matters who says a book is good, bad, horribly researched, profoundly insightful. It is especially important to our readers to see that our reviewers are mostly librarians, because our reviews aim to place each book in the context of the appropriate collection."

A signed review answers the question, "Does that person have the credentials to make the comments?" says Hoffert.

The only drawback to the signed review, Hoffert notes, is purely editorial: the editor can't make changes without some back and forth with the reviewer. But when asked if Library Journal might ever transition to anonymous reviews, Hoffert answered an emphatic no. "For the reviewers, they have tremendous professional value as well: a librarian feels that he or she has made a contribution to the field," she says. "For academics, writing reviews can fulfill the inevitable writing requirement of professorship, and academic reviewers get important books in their areas early."

While Kirkus has a smaller circulation, about 4,000 from the latest figures I could find, most of its subscribers are libraries—about 3,500. So while Kirkus is reaching roughly the same audience as Library Journal, albeit with a smaller market share, it seems to have very different notions about the value of anonymous reviews to that audience. Szewczyk notes, "I find that consumer periodicals benefit more from bylines than do the trades."

But the truth is, Kirkus and all three of the other trades have become consumer brands by virtue of the fact that their reviews appear on Amazon and Barnes & Noble's sites. So the distinction Szewczyk offers isn't really applicable in the marketplace anymore. Certainly, plenty of reviews on Amazon and on blogs are anonymous, but they are written for the most part by consumers, and other consumers know this—they can take them with a grain of salt. But when the PW or Kirkus name graces the end of a review where an individual's byline might otherwise appear, that's a different story entirely.

The author gets the last word
I know from my limited experience with book reviewing—I've only written a couple over the past few years because it is time-consuming, and you don't get paid much, if at all—that it takes a certain amount of courage to attach one's name to a review, particularly when the verdict isn't all positive. Chalk it up to a fundamental weakness in human nature, but as a reader, I want to like the book I give my time and imagination to. Still, I'm willing to point out the flaws and failures, too, and let the readers decide whether the subject matter or the author, if an already-known entity, still attracts them enough to take their chances.

While I agree that anonymity can foster greater honesty in reviews, I believe it also combines a false image of objectivity with the freedom to go beyond honesty into gratuitous harshness. Former Kirkus reviewer Jonathan Taylor recalled how he occasionally enjoyed writing scathing reviews, and that, furthermore, "I was even happy that it was anonymous, that my opinion and my voice were cloaked in whatever institutional authority Kirkus had."

While I respect anyone's right to their own opinions about what they read, I feel this combination was at work in the Kirkus review of Bulletproof Girl. A story collection, being a sum of self-contained units, offers the reviewer opportunity to point to some stories as more successful than others. In the case of Bulletproof Girl, the reviewer ripped six out of eleven stories. Was it possible, I wondered, upon the first, stomach-bruising read, that this person simply could not admit he or she admired even one of the other five? Or did the reviewer not even read all of the book?

Of course, I wanted to know: who did this to my book?—and to me, by extension. I wanted to know because I was angry, because I wanted to respond. I also thought knowing would help me put the review in context of who that person is, and why he or she responded to my book so negatively, since even the worst—or best—review in the world is still just one person's point of view. And finally, not knowing seems so fundamentally unfair, since this book, which I worked on for ten years, has my name on it, and the review is a public reaction—and the only thing kept private is the reviewer's name.

There's nothing I can do about it, except to keep posting to my website's news page all the other great coverage Bulletproof Girl has earned, and to remember that many people have supported it—from the literary magazine editors who originally published the stories to the other reviewers who have praised the book to the readers who have taken the trouble to write to me about how much the book has meant to them. Additionally, it helps me to remember that one of the stories won a literary prize (the same one the Kirkus reviewer dismissed as having an ending that "doesn't work") and that two other stories are going to be anthologized in forthcoming collections.

That said, I believe the Kirkus review hurt advance sales of Bulletproof Girl to libraries and bookstores and discouraged consumer reviewers from covering it, which continues to affect sales. I believe this was true for my novel as well, and while I'd love to say I'm above worrying about sales, I know my ability to sell my completed second story collection and currently in-progress second novel in the future is tied, at least in part, to exactly that.

Quinn Dalton, who is the author of a novel, High Strung, and a short story collection, Bulletproof Girl, as well as several drafts of an unsent hate letter to her Kirkus reviewer, admits that she wrote this article.

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