Tuesday, December 06, 2011 posted by Jen at 12/06/2011 12:23:00 PM
Remember that old Andre Agassi campaign where he finger-combed his mullet and told us that “image is everything?”
Take that and triple it when it comes to ethics in book reviewing.
Readers deserve a critic’s honest take on a book, an opinion that hasn't been influenced by the critic’s relationship with the author or her publisher. Because the community of critics and writers is small and incestuous, with plenty of connections and lots of overlap, editors are meticulous about making sure that the reviews they run are beyond reproach.
A reviewer cannot share a blood relation or a bed with the author of the book she’ll be considering. She can’t have written a blurb or be thanked in the acknowledgments of the book under consideration, or have blurbed or thanked its author.
Critics can’t review the work of a friend, or an enemy.
Generally, reviewers are required to disclose any relationship – any at all – that they have with the author. Did you ever work at the same university? Judge a contest together? Win the same fellowship, sit on the same panel, attend a writers’ conference at the same time? The editors want to know, because they want to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, of log-rolling or score-settling or a review that is, or even seems to be, ethically tainted. They want their reviews to be fair, and to look that way.
Among the list of thou-shalt-nots is a rule that’s so basic that editors could be forgiven for not even mentioning it: thou shalt not take money from the publisher to promote the book you’re reviewing.
That's why it was surprising to find the Minneapolis Star-Tribune publishing Bethanne Patrick's review of Joyce Carol Oates’ book THE CORN MAIDEN…the same book that Patrick, wearing her #fridayreads hat, had done a paid giveaway of the month before. (Full disclosure: Joyce Carol Oates was one of my creative writing professors in college, some twenty years ago).
Patrick was assigned the review in August. She turned in her review in October. At some point between October and November, she negotiated the promotion with Oates’ publisher.
Star-Tribune Senior Editor Laurie Hertzel said in an email interview that at no point did Patrick disclose that she was doing a paid promotion for the book she’d reviewed. Hertzel said she “did not know about the financial relationship (between Patrick and Oates’ publisher) before the review was published.”
In fact, Hertzel said didn’t even know that there was a paid component to Fridayreads.
This should come as no surprise to anyone who’s been following the Fridayreads saga, and who know that Patrick, who has been doing paid promotions ranging from $750 to $2,000 since March of this year, chose to disclose that fact that Fridayreads is “a hashtag and a business both” halfway down a FAQ page on a website, as opposed to on Twitter and Facebook, as FTC regulations require, and did not label promoted tweets as such.
When all of this was pointed out, by me and other writers, Patrick essentially threw up her hands and pleaded ignorance. Things moved fast, steps were skipped, the Internet’s a big, confusing place. Maybe she didn’t do everything right, but she didn’t mean to mislead anyone and she’s sorry if she did.
Which is the same line she’s repeating now that the book review-promo conflict has come to light. "I'm in new territory here," she tweeted yesterday.
Except disclosing a conflict to a newspaper editor isn’t new territory, or even new media. It’s fundamental. It’s Book Reviewing 101.
Readers and writers understand how rapidly the ground is shifting as the conversation about reading moves from print media to the Internet, where book bloggers work multiple jobs and sometimes have conflicting allegiances. Reasonable people can make allowances for honest mistakes…but not telling an editor who’s assigned you a review that you’ve been paid to promote that same title?
Hertzel said Patrick’s future as a freelance critic for the Star Tribune is now under review.
But there’s a bigger issue here than the critic who made bad choices, the editor who was kept in the dark, the author whose glowing review now looks fishy, and the readers, who now have reason to wonder whether what they read in their morning paper was an honest assessment or a bought-and-paid-for Valentine.
Authors deserve reviews that are fair and impartial. Other freelance critics and book bloggers don’t deserve the cynicism and suspicion that they’ll receive in the wake of Patrick's double-dip. Most of all, readers deserve reviews that are not, and do not appear to be, influenced by relationships, connections, or -- above all -- money.
Welcome to A Moment of Jen, author Jennifer Weiner's constantly-updated take on books, baby, and news of the world. Email me at jen (a) jenniferweiner.com.