PW met Randy Cohen, who writes "The Ethicist" column for the New York Times Magazine, on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Over a cup of tea, the lanky Cohen (who looks nothing like the cartoon character that accompanies his column) spoke about his book The Good, the Bad & the Difference.
PW: What's the response been to your column?
RC: It's been thrilling. [My column] gets more mail than anything in the magazine. A great deal of that mail is pointing out what a dope I am, but still... people are interested.
PW: Why compile all these pieces into a book?
RC: Although it does seem to include my greatest hits, it's not just a collection of pieces. Space [in my column] is limited, so there are things I never get to do. There are things that people ask about—when they ask nicely, they say, "Who are you? What's your background?" When they're angry at something I've written, it's more, "Who the heck do you think you are?" That's a fair question, so it's a chance to write about my background, how the column developed, what I hope to accomplish in it. And in a more theoretical way, how I think about ethics.
PW: What else do you cover in your book?
RC: People who glibly give out advice (like me and Dear Abby) never stick around to see if their advice is any good. So I've gotten in touch with people from the first year of the column and asked, "Was what I had to say of any use to you? Did you ignore it? Did you do what I suggested? Did it ruin your life, or was it actually helpful in some way?" Certain columns generate a great difference of opinion, and people are not shy about writing and telling me just how wrong I got it. This is a chance to run some of that.
PW: Do you think it's ethical for book reviewers to sell the free books they receive from publishers for personal profit?
RC: You can't impose conditions on a gift. If the publisher sends an unsolicited book to someone, they can't say, "You must mail this back to us if you don't use it. You can't use it to prop open your door. You can't use it for a pillow when you go camping." If you sell it, you act unethically toward the writers, though, who don't receive the royalty. It seems to me the solution is for publishers to send out a form that says, "Do you want to receive a sample of our new book? Here are the conditions under which we'll send it to you." It's not a contract; it just says, "We'd be happy to send you a copy of this book, but you can't resell it." If publishers give books to people, presumably with the permission of the writers, they've agreed to bear all those costs, and the writers have agreed that that's part of marketing their book. I do think you can resell it. Except for my book, which no one can ever resell.
PW: Is it ethical to regift a book?
RC: Sure—a gift is a gift. There are no strings attached. But you're going to break the heart of the person who wrote such a nice inscription.
PW: Is it ethical for a book publisher to use phrases, rather than entire sentences, from a book review in an advertisement or on a book jacket?
RC: To condense is legitimate and necessary. But to condense in a way that is misleading is completely unethical.
PW: Let's say I write a weekly column for a magazine. Is it ethical for me to gather a bunch of those columns, package them into a book and expect people to pay $23.95 for what is essentially regurgitated material?
RC: It would absolutely be unethical to do that, which is why I have not. About two-thirds of what's in this particular collection is new, and one-third is columns that have run in the magazine.