Like all the members of the National Book Critics Circle, last month I was asked to participate in an online survey about the ethics of book reviewing. I dutifully pointed and clicked my way through the dozens of questions, some of which were no-brainers: Is it ever okay to review a book without reading all of it? (For the record, no.) But I couldn't help feeling that, with newspapers around the country slashing their book coverage, ethical problems are the least of the problems facing the book world today. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution fired its long-serving, widely respected book-review editor, Teresa Weaver, actually prompting protesters to picket the building. The Los Angeles Times Book Review, one of the nation's best stand-alone book reviews, was folded into another section of the Sunday paper. More and more regional newspapers are replacing local reviewers with wire coverage, or dropping their book reviews altogether. In this context, the NBCC survey seemed a bit like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
The NBCC, let me hasten to add, has fought hard to stem the tide of book review closings. As part of its "Campaign to Save Book Reviews," the NBCC has launched petition drives, sponsored debates and discussions, and generally tried to raise the consciousness of the literary world. When BookExpo America came to town earlier this month, the NBCC hosted three panels, on the history, the ethics, and the bleak future of book reviewing. But it seems that no matter how many people complain, the corporations that own most newspapers refuse to acknowledge that cutting book review coverage is a short-sighted, even cannibalistic, business decision. Book review sections seldom pay their way with ads, but they are a vital connection with the most dedicated and valuable part of a newspaper's audience — people committed to reading, and in particular to print. Cutting that audience loose is not just bad for America's literary culture; it is bad for the future of newspapers.
Yet in the face of the constant shrinkage of newspaper book coverage — as inexorable, it seems, as the melting of the glaciers — the literary world still makes time to fight over some very minor "ethical" questions. "Should a book review editor assign a book on subject A to a reviewer who has also written a book on subject A?" the NBCC survey asked. "Should authors who publish with a particular house be permitted to review other books published by that house?" I can't think of a working editor or journalist who would say no to either question. What's more, such questions demonstrate a basically flawed understanding of what book reviews are for.
That was the unanimous judgment of the participants in the "Ethics of Book Reviewing" panel held at BEA. Some of the most influential editors and writers in the country — including Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of the New York Times Book Review, and Francine Prose, a frequent reviewer for Harper's and other publications — pretty much shrugged off all of the ethical concerns that the NBCC survey raised. As Ms. Prose said, such questions stem from "a bogus idea about book reviewing" — the idea that a book review is like "a peer review panel of the FDA."
Mr. Tanenhaus put his finger on the source of the problem. Questions like those raised by the NBCC survey envision the book review as a transaction between author and reviewer, rather than between reviewer and reader. To be obsessed with potential bias or conflict of interest on the book reviewer's part is to imagine the reviewer as a judge, who is obligated to provide every author with his or her day in court. But that judicial standard is impossible, because there is no such thing as an objective judgment of a work of literature; aesthetic judgment is by definition personal and opinionated. Nor would a perfectly objective book review even be desirable. The whole point of a review is to set one mind against another, and see what sparks fly. If the reviewer lacks an individual point of view, or struggles to repress it, there can be no intellectual friction, and therefore no interest or drama.
It makes a certain kind of sense, however, that book reviewers would become obsessed with ethical purity just at the moment that the newspaper book review is endangered. For along with the fall of the print review, we are also seeing the rise of the Internet review — or, rather, of a new form of discourse about books, which is not quite the same thing as reviewing. People who write about books on the Internet, and they are surprisingly numerous, do not call themselves reviewers, but bloggers. And the subtext of the NBCC's ethics survey and panel was really about the standards, professional and ethical, that bloggers are bringing to the profession.
In one sense, the democratization of discourse about books is a good thing, and should lead to a widening of our intellectual horizons. The more people there are out there reading, making discoveries, and advocating for their favorite books, the better. But book bloggers have also brought another, less salutary influence to bear on literary culture: a powerful resentment. Often isolated and inexperienced, usually longing to break into print themselves, bloggers — even the influential bloggers who are courted by publishers — tend to consider themselves disenfranchised. As a result, they are naturally ready to see ethical violations and conspiracies everywhere in the literary world. As anyone who reads literary blogs can attest, hell hath no fury like a blogger scorned. And the scorn is reciprocated: Professional writers usually assume that those who can, do, while those who can't, blog.
In fact, despite what the bloggers themselves believe, the future of literary culture does not lie with blogs — or at least, it shouldn't. The blog form, that miscellany of observations, opinions, and links, is not well-suited to writing about literature, and it is no coincidence that there is no literary blogger with the audience and influence of the top political bloggers. For one thing, literature is not news the way politics is news — it doesn't offer multiple events every day for the blogger to comment on. For another, bitesized commentary, which is all the blog form allows, is next to useless when it comes to talking about books. Literary criticism is only worth having if it at least strives to be literary in its own right, with a scope, complexity, and authority that no blogger I know even wants to achieve. The only useful part of most book blogs, in fact, are the links to long-form essays and articles by professional writers, usually from print journals.
Still, it is important to distinguish between the blog as a genre and the Internet as a medium. It is not just possible but likely that, one day, serious criticism will find its primary home on the Web. The advantages — ease of access, low cost, potential audience — are too great to ignore, even if our habits and technology still make it hard to read long essays on the computer screen. Already there are some web publications — like Contemporary Poetry Review (cprw.com), to which I occasionally contribute — that match anything in print for seriousness of purpose. But there's no chance that literary culture will thrive on the Internet until we recognize that the ethical and intellectual crotchets of the bloggers represent a dead end.