Morals and Mean Reviews

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Last summer for my sociology dissertation on evaluation in the arts I interviewed thirty book critics with bylines in major newspapers and periodicals, including The New York Times Book Review and The Times Literary Supplement. Few of the critics reviewed full-time, but rather worked concurrently as novelists, English professors, writing instructors, or freelance journalists. The reviewers each spoke with me for roughly an hour over the phone from home offices, during lunch hours, and even between other interviews while on book tours. Many expressed the opinion that reviewing offered them a way to contribute to the discussion of writing in a world that seemed to have less and less space for books. As a result, they were very willing to share their thoughts about the ethics of book reviewing, their own review practices, and what they liked or disliked about the books they reviewed.

Reviewing—like reading—is an impassioned activity, so it was unsurprising that the critics used both technical and emotional language to explain why they gave books good or bad reviews. One explained he was taken by a writer’s technical “ability to construct stories in these different voices.” Another was impressed by “the language . . . the poetic ways [the author] turned abstract ideas into solid ones.” Critics also praised books for having “moving” plotlines or “engaging” characters.

The emotion inherent in both reading and reviewing came out most strongly when critics recounted reviewing books they disliked. They described books as “irritating” or “extremely annoying.” One reviewer described the lack of detail in an historical novel as “arousing [her] wrath.” Some critics spoke as though they were reviewing not only bad novels, but also morally “bad” novelists. One reviewer explained she wrote a negative review of a book because she felt the author treated his topic in a “mean-spirited and superior and nasty” way. Another critic felt compelled to take an author to task because she felt the storytelling was “incredibly dishonest and lazy.”

The critics were unlikely to express themselves with the same vehemence in their professional writing. When I compared what critics said during interviews with their published reviews of the same titles, the language was noticeably sanitized. For example, one critic who described a book as being “a mess and all over the place” during our interview, diplomatically writes in his print review that readers may feel “lost” at some points.

The moral criticisms of writers, however, were conveyed just as emphatically—if more eloquently—in print. Critics wrote about authors as being too “cranky” or “pedantic,” and sacrificing story for the sake of “showing off” with language. One writer was admonished for resorting to stereotypes to compensate for his lack of creativity. Another critic warns an author that the “self-righteousness” permeating his oeuvre is “wearing thin.” I do not offer full quotations to protect the anonymity of my respondents, but in general this pattern held true: reviewers’ language was more diplomatic in print with the exception of their negative moral commentary.

Admittedly, these observations are based on a small sample of reviews and reviewers, and it is possible that the thirty critics I spoke were a particularly ungenerous bunch. But apart from pathologizing reviewers, I’d like to suggest that the professional norms of book reviewing may encourage negative moral commentary about writers.

Readers expect critics to bracket their personal preferences as readers and draw upon their specialized literary knowledge when reviewing a novel. Thus, critics’ subjective reactions while reading (e.g., being “annoyed” or “irritated”) are not meant to figure prominently in their critical assessments. In fact, many critics cited their ability to see past their idiosyncratic reactions as readers when reviewing as distinguishing them from amateur reviewers online.

Moral commentary, however, may be more acceptable to include in reviews because, while far from universal, morals represent shared values. When a critic chastises a novelist for being mean-spirited, arrogant, or dishonest these criticisms are not just personal gripes but appeal to common ideas about unethical behavior. So moral commentary offers critics a way of expressing their personal feelings of disappointment and frustration with bad novels without appearing idiosyncratic. Undoubtedly, there are those critics who seem to like only one kind of fiction and pan anything outside of this narrow preference; and there are those who would savage a novel and its author for purely personal ends. But the very personal and moral tone in book reviews may not be solely the result of reviewers behaving unprofessionally, but induced by the imperative to write about reading fiction, an inherently personal and emotional act, in strictly “professional” terms.

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