Ethics of Reviewing

Several months ago, Justin Landon invited both myself and Amal El–Mohtar onto Rocket Talk to discuss “ethics in literary journalism.” It was a far–ranging and often digressive conversation and it’s a subject I’ve been turning over in my head ever since. There are a lot of ways to approach this issue, as many ways as there are to review a book. There are many intersecting relationships and power differentials to consider in the spaces between reviewer, reader, author, and publisher.

So. Let me begin by defining my terms. Your definitions may differ, but these are mine and are the foundation on which the rest of this essay rests.

What is a review? A review is, essentially, an opinion. What is the role of a reviewer? I believe a reviewer’s role is, in part, to inform potential consumers about something—in this case, a text of some sort, be it a novel, short story, or other mechanism by which a story is conveyed. A review is usually part of a public conversation.

I tend to view criticism as being in a similar but different vein to reviewing. Criticism can be given privately as a work is being developed, in a controlled environment like a writer’s workshop, or writing about a text in a specialized fashion—in a way that puts the work in a specific context or examines a particular aspect of the work in minute detail. I also see criticism as being intended for an audience which has read and which is familiar with the text.

Perhaps an example is in order: a fairly well known piece of criticism in the SF field is John Kessel’s “Creating the Innocent Killer,” which is about Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. Kessel’s piece assumes that the reader is familiar with Card’s novel, whereas Thomas M. Wagner’s review of the book does not. Both pieces give away details of the novel, but as the novel was published 30 years ago, that’s not really a surprise: a review of a newer book would generally not have specific details.

Finally: what are ethics? Ethics are at their most basic a system of right and wrong. Reviewing and criticism can both be fraught with ethical questions, especially when one stops to think about the overlapping communities involved as well as the different power dynamics in play. Recently, GamerGate has made the word “ethics” a bit of a joke, but it’s something I take quite seriously, even as I make jokes about “Ethics in [Insert Noun Here]”. Before GamerGate, there was (and is) Stop the GoodReads Bullies (STGRB), which is a site devoted to attacking—and doxxing—people (mostly women) who leave negative reviews on GoodReads as the leaders of that movement see most negative reviews as a kind of bullying (they are not). The parallels between GamerGate and Stop the GoodReads Bullies sites are quite striking, in fact. But that is another essay.

I’ve thought about these issues a lot over the last decade.

As I mentioned before, there are power dynamics at play here: paradoxically, readers have both the least and the most power. The least because alone, a reader’s voice is usually softer, but the most because they are the ones buying the books.

However, in terms of public platforms, most authors and publishers have more power to move the needle. There are people who will give a representative from a publishing house or a published author’s words more weight simply because of those factors. But most people who work in publishing—editors, writers, and all the other myriad people required to make a book happen—are also readers. So the lines are definitely blurry. Some published authors review, but under different names. Some review under their public names. Others choose not to review or to review only works that they have enjoyed. Authors give other authors blurbs for their books to help sell the books to both readers and also to reviewers: the blurb is a key part of pre–publication publicity and can sway a reviewer into choosing to read a book or not.

Reviewing—and to a lesser extent, criticism—is a liminal space and, as such, it can be challenging to navigate. And, ultimately, each reviewer needs to make these decisions for themselves. There is no one hard and fast rule for how to ethically review a book (or short story or video game or film). Reviewers must be allowed to have the independence they need to come their own conclusions about a work and those people on either side of the reviewer—those who are creating the content and those who are consuming it. I do feel that reviewers should be allowed to choose the subjects of their work freely and without condition placed upon them—as long as said subject falls within the purview of the publication for which they write.

That’s a lot of qualifications. Let me say it simply: if I have a book review column in a magazine, I’m going to review the books I want to review and if I feel like only reviewing works by women or by persons of color, then that is what I’m going to do. I’m also not going to go out of my way to find books that make me feel like I’m getting punched in the face. I find that I generally have a bias against being punched in the face, if for no reason other than the fact that glasses are stupid expensive.

What it comes down to, for me, is disclosure. When I was the SFF section coordinator for RT Book Reviews, I received all books that I reviewed at no charge from the publishers. This is standard practice in the industry. As such, I did not disclose this fact—also because I was writing reviews of about 200 words. Now that I am reviewing independently, sometimes it’s a book I’ve bought (Goblin Emperor) and sometimes I receive a copy from the publisher (Ancillary Justice). When I was a professional reviewer, I did sometimes choose not to review books if I felt I wasn’t able to keep an appropriate critical distance, particularly if it was part of a series that I’d disliked previous volumes: it felt fairer to both me and to the book to try to find it a more sympathetic reviewer. One of the reasons I made the decision to leave RT was the fact that I could feel my friendships with authors bleeding both into my reviews and into my book choices and that wasn’t fair to anyone—not to the readers, the books, the authors, or myself. If you were to look at my average rating over the eight years I was with RT, you would see it steadily climb and that was absolutely because I was self–selecting for books I knew I would find enjoyable. Again, see my reluctance to be punched in the face. But I also felt it was compromising the quality and integrity of my work.

There are other ways to review unethically: you can write a dishonest review. You can review a book you haven’t read. To draw an example from the world of film, you can write advertisement–as–reviews under a fake name. There are author loops and online writers groups whose members commit to promoting each other: this is often in the guise of reviews, particularly reviews on Amazon. There are authors who have street teams, where readers sign up for the opportunity to promote and review the latest book in exchange for a chance to win a prize (often a tablet or a new e–reader)—naturally, those reviews will be heavily biased towards the positive end of the spectrum: people wouldn’t sign up for a street team if they weren’t already ardent fans of an author’s work.

Which brings us to the idea that readers have an obligation to review books on Amazon, on Barnes & Noble, on GoodReads. No, they don’t. No one is obligated to review anything they don’t want to. Promotion is the publisher’s job and reviews on retail sites and on GoodReads are seen as being net positives for the various discovery algorithms. I understand that in the current bookselling climate getting a book noticed is a challenge, but I suggest that this is not the consumer’s problem. Reviewers who review for pay do have an obligation to produce reviews in exchange for monetary compensation, but as I said before, their primary audience is the reader. I have always seen it as incidental if something I’ve said in a review is helpful for promotion.

Reviewers will bring their own biases and preferences to a book and if space allows, these should also be disclosed. Many venues simply don’t have this sort of space, particularly print publications. Online publications have more room and that’s definitely one of the joys of reviewing on a blog—you can natter on at length about your expectations going into the book. Fairly early on in my reviewing career I nearly didn’t read a debut novel because of the cover blurb. That book was Brandon Sanderson’s Elantris, and after I finished it, I was very glad that I got over myself.

One thing I don’t think a lot of people realize is that it’s genuinely exciting to discover an awesome new writer or to read the new book by an established author and realize that they’ve leveled up in some intangible way and are now even better than they were before. That kind of excitement, on the part of a reader or a reviewer, is unpredictable and really can’t be forced.

And, sometimes—often—the excitement is not positive but negative. Which is more challenging for both reviewers and authors to deal with. Reviewers must be honest about problems they find in books and while the intent may not have been to offend or upset, authors need to accept that once a book is out in the world you cannot—and you should not—control how they’re going to react. You cannot control the conversation that reviewers and readers are going to have about your book and it’s futile to even try.

So that brings me to another ethical issue: that of authors publicly responding to reviews. This is another place where the power differential must be explored and understood. I feel that in most cases, responding to a review—particularly a negative one—is not a good idea. Stating that the reviewer is interrogating the text from the wrong perspective is a recipe for hilarity, not one where everyone will suddenly bow to your superior authority as Author. The text is, in many ways, a joint creation of both author and reader, and once a book is with the reader, I believe that your job as a creator is complete. I don’t want to say that any and all reactions to a book are right: I do not believe reviewers or readers should threaten bodily harm to authors, not even in grossly hyperbolic terms. But I also believe that there must be space for reviews which are negative and which call out racism, sexism, and other oppressions for what they are.

Negative reviews are critically important to our community, in a very real sense they help us to define the boundaries of what we find acceptable in our entertainments. To uncritically accept rape scenes or persistent racial microaggressions is to be smaller and less inclusive than we are capable of being and it is the marginalized among us who are often most sensitive to these issues and best placed to speak about them. It would be unethical to use one’s greater power to attempt to silence those voices and that is often what it appears that authors are attempting to do when they respond to negative reviews. Once the work is out in the world, you are no longer in control and it is important that authors accept that.

I believe that this is a conversation that we, as a community, must have: for better or for worse, people are going to have opinions about the stories they read or watch or play and some of those people are going to want to share. Power differentials are shifting in ways they haven’t in the past and an off–hand comment can go viral astonishingly quickly—I’ve seen it happen more than once, in all sorts of directions.

We are a multiplicity of voices and there is so much to talk about—and I believe we can do it in a way which optimizes both transparency and ethics.

Let’s get started.


4 Responses to “Ethics of Reviewing”

  1. deirdresm

    After one rejection letter I received, I realized that I hadn’t ruled out the editor’s take on the story and the problem they had with my unintentional invocation, at least in the editor’s mind, of an old Twilight Zone episode. Thus, part of my job was not only adding details to include certain interpretations, my job also included adding details to exclude certain interpretations. I really felt like I leveled up after that rejection letter—which was a critique of a sort.

  2. AMPillsworth

    An excellent take on an endlessly interesting topic for all of us involved in publishing, from writer through reader. The advice on avoiding the “Author’s Big Mistake” is often hard to take, but yeah, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a case where responding to a negative review went well. Sometimes even responding to a positive review can be fraught, or so I’ve heard. That is, some readers don’t want to know the writer is “watching” them. The ethics to responding to positive pro reviews? Good, bad, varies widely by reviewer? I’m guessing the last choice.

  3. Loose-leaf Links for July | Earl Grey Editing

    […] is something I’ve pondered before, so I was pleased to see this excellent article on ethics and reviewing up on Uncanny Magazine. I continue to strive for transparency in my […]

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