Book Critics’ Survey Shows Few Changes In Reviewing Ethics

December 13, 2007
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December 13 – December 20, 2007 Edition

Book Critics’ Survey

Shows Few Changes

In Reviewing Ethics

NEW YORK,NY/12/11/07–The National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) has release the first survey conducted in some 20 years, titled "The Ethics of Book Reviewing."

Among key findings are that 68.5 percent of book reviewers think anyone mentioned in a book’s acknowledgments should be barred from reviewing it, and 64.9 percent think anyone who has written an unpaid "blurb" for a book should also be banned from writing a fuller review.

According to the NBCC’s blog, 76.5 percent think it’s never ethical to review a book without reading the whole thing. And 52 percent think it’s not okay for a book-review editor, in assigning books for review, to favor books by writers who also review regularly for that editor’s book section.

Carlin Romano, Literary Critic, The Philadelphia conducted the first survey in 1987 for the NBCC and published the results in 1988, and again this year. He also conducted this year’s study.

Interestingly, 40.1 percent think a reviewer shouldn’t read other reviews of a book before writing his or her own, but 17.9 per cent think that’s perfectly okay, and 33.5 per cent feel it’s complicated enough to require commentary rather than a firm answer.

73.4 percent answer "Not Sure" when asked, "Are the ethics of book reviewing in the United States and England significantly different?"

And 60.5 percent think it’s okay for a newspaper book section or magazine to ignore self-published books that authors submit to them, e.g., iUniverse type books.

Administered through surveymonkey.com, this year’s survey contained 33 questions, drew 364 respondents, and 1,938 comments. Thirteen of the questions were the same as on the 1987 survey, to evaluate changing attitudes. Romano reported on the NBCC blog that "ethical judgments have remained consistent through the years," though some ethical judgments have shifted.

In 1987, 75.4 percent thought it unethical for a reviewer to back out of reviewing a book already accepted for review, on the ground that the reviewer didn’t like the book and didn’t want to say negative things in print. In 2007, only 34.4 thought that — the exact same percentage as those who thought it ethical.

"One explanation may be that the 2007 survey drew a far larger number of reviewers who are freelance writers rather than on-staff journalists — it may be that the staff journalist’s sense of commitment to an assignment and required reportage no longer holds sway," said Romano. In a similar departure from the 1987 results, 38.1 percent of the 2007 respondents, when asked, "Should a writer be allowed to review the book of someone who shares the same literary agent?", answered "Yes." Nearly the same percentage — 37.8 — answered "No." Yet in 1987, 70.7 percent answered "Yes."

"Are reviewers noticing more back scratching reviews by folks who share the agent of the author under review, and perhaps getting tired of the practice?" Romano speculated on the NBCC blog.

He noted that book reviewers are largely divided between those who believe in something you might call the "objective" book review, and those who don’t — attitudes toward specific practices in the field follow almost syllogistically from one premise or the other."

Romano also said that "Net-based aspects of our literary life appear not to have settled in enough to create clear-cut ethical judgments."

The non-profit organization of book critics sponsors the annual National Book Critics Circle Awards.

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