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Are Literary Feuds All in Our Heads?

What with all the recent public handwringing over whether Kathyrn Harrison should have been allowed to review Maureen Dowd’s book, considering what Dowd had said about Harrison’s memoir several years ago, a colleague of mine from the book reviewing world passed along an interesting question: “Should a critic be considered ‘conflicted’ if the ‘conflict’ consists solely of the potential subject having said something unpleasant about the critic in the past?”  This writer answers his own question: “I think no—especially for smaller genres like literary fiction and poetry, this approach would encourage authors to publicly insult reviewers they think might be hostile to their work, essentially allowing them to pick their own critics.”

I thought that sounded a little more Machiavellian, especially for writers, but I agree that the question itself was thorny, and that it simply isn’t very charitable to suggest that an author is incapable of reviewing another author’s work without her perspective being colored by personal vendetta. As our source puts it, “If we assume a conflict only when a reviewer actually responds to an author’s nasty remark, then we allow reviewers some control over their own fates. As a critic, obviously I prefer this approach—but then, my general feeling is that you shouldn’t throw stones if you’re afraid of having them thrown back at you.” He also raises an interesting side question for this blogospheric age of ours: “Is a reviewer conflicted if he or she’s been criticized on an author’s blog? I’d say no (you write your post, you take your chances), but opinions may differ.” As somebody who’s thrown quite a few stones at book reviewers in the last two years, I’ve obviously got a stake in that question, and I concur with his judgment. But what do you think about these issues?

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