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BEA Day Two: Ethics in Book Reviewing

Immediately after moderating the blog panel, Bud Parr took out his video camera and taped the panel proceedings, which he’s edited into the above highlight show. And considering the star wattage assembled for the panel, highlights abounded.

Moderator and Philly Inquirer book critic Carlin Romano began by rattling off all 37 questions asked as part of the National Book Critics Circle‘s revised survey on book reviewing ethics, commenting with tongue in cheek that the only question all 356 responders agreed on was that they were NBCC members. Then each panelist spoke for about five minutes or so on the nature of ethics and starting with Christopher Hitchens, the consensus was that if it’s not okay to review a friend’s work, it shouldn’t necessarily be taboo, either. “Who knows a writer’s body of work better,” said former NYTBR editor John Leonard of what he termed a “friend of a mind”, adding that such questions are “small potatoes compared to the corruption of a culture at large.”

Francine Prose related a witty anecdote about her days reviewing for the New York Observer and how she thought of opting out of reviewing an acquaintance’s work. “You didn’t have an affair with him, right?” asked her editor, Adam Begley (which we took to be paraphrasing more salty language.) LA Times book editor David Ulin did express discomfort of having friends review friends but that the question is better served by case-by-case questioning. “No potential conflicts are too stupid,” he said, adding that any conflicts should be disclosed by the reviewer to the editor because the editor often has only limited knowledge.

The odd man out on many levels was current NYTBR editor Sam Tanenhaus, who not only had trouble sitting still for most of the panel but seemed to delight overmuch in the examples of blurred line ethics as pertaining to the Book Review, like boasting proudly of inviting Hitchens to review a friend’s work for the publication. (Let’s not even get into his closing comments that, after a colleague remarked “you’ll know who your friends are when you leave the job” that “it’s okay, I don’t have any friends” and how it seemed to betray less humor than startling truth.) And even though it’s fairly likely Tanenhaus had a prior engagement that prevented him from sticking around for the Q&A after the panel ran long, his almost immediate bolting smacked of a lack of accountability to the audience, and perhaps his fellow panelists. I wasn’t the only one to note that after Tanenhaus (and Hitchens) left, the room’s mood lightened a great deal – and that’s not only because of Romano’s pointed attacks against Michiko Kakutani, equating her reviewing style with “killing babies in their crib.”

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