As part of a project to develop a code of “best practices” for book reviews, the NBCC hosted a panel to present data from its ongoing survey and discuss questions that have arisen in the process. Moderated by board member Marcela Valdes, the panel featured Carlin Romano of the Chronicle of Higher Education, agent Eric Simonoff of William Morris Endeavor, critic Maureen Corrigan of NPR’s Fresh Air, editor Parul Sehgal of the New York Times Book Review, and editor Lorin Stein, editor of the Paris Review.
Corrigan, in discussing notions of objectivity in book reviewing, noted that one pleasure of reading criticism is to “watch the mind at work.” She questioned the value of sterilized reviews stripped clean of their biases. Her fellow panelists agreed, adding that of greater importance is that a critic be honest about any impartiality or biases. Sehgal remarked that different publications have different contracts with their readers, and expectations change as readers’ needs change. A good critic, she continued, should always be “interrogating their own tastes” in the process of reviewing.
Simonoff provided an agent’s perspective and brought up issues surrounding the importance of who receives a particular assignment. At a time when less space is given to criticism generally, every review counts that much more, while Romano reminded the audience, “Literary ethics don’t take place in a vacuum.” In that light, is it beneficial to make space for “polite” or “inoffensive” reviews? Sehgal and Stein both questioned the value of refusing to write negative reviews, since it is important to a critic’s evolving sensibility. Stein also noted that it’s not necessary that a reviewer finish a book, but in the rare case that happens, the “why” should be fleshed out in the piece.
Valdes asked, “Are there any hard rules that we could put out there?” The panelists concurred that, despite Romano’s earlier sentiments against applying a universal code for reviewers, being honest about biases within a piece is fundamental, and that it’s vital to take a book on its own terms, not those desired by the critic. Sehgal and Romano added that a good critic never misrepresents an author’s argument or exaggerates the flaws in a text.
The NBCC continues its explorations into these issues through the summer.