Report from the NBCC Ethics Panel

By Brenn Jones

Ladies in firefighting attire and gents on Segways greeted visitors outside the Javits Convention Center on Friday morning. A large golden “Book TV” bus was parked inside, a symbol of how the book business is about more than just reading. Down a stairway and an escalator, off the basement concourse, were competing 11:30–12:30 panel discussions: “Amazon 101: Maximizing Your Business on” and “Ethics of Book Reviewing: The More Things Change…” moderated by NBCC member and Philadelphia Inquirer critic Carlin Romano. All seats for the Ethics panel were filled by 11:20, and by the time the discussion got underway, spectators had lined the walls and were spilling out the door.

After a brief introduction by NBCC President John Freeman, Romano read each of the 37 questions on the NBCC ethics survey. The audience collectively chuckled at two of them: “Is it ever ethical to review a book you have not completely read?” and “Is it okay for a reviewer to sell a book she or he can’t review?”

The panelists, headlined by Christopher Hitchens, author of “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,” addressed ethics primarily through the author/critic relationship. Hitchens set the tone by declaring that he was the most qualified critic to review On Chesil Beach for the Atlantic Monthly, despite his close friendship with author Ian McEwan, and that if anybody disagreed, “they could kiss my…”. (Hitchens actually said “they could kiss my aa” but whether intentional or not, never got to the s). Hitchens noted that The Times Literary Supplement in London didn’t suffer the “permanent affectation of integrity” that plagues the New York Times.

 Rather than challenge the provocateur, John Leonard (distinguished critic), Francine Prose (distinguished author), David Ulin (Los Angeles Times), and Sam Tanenhaus (New York Times) fell in line. If I can’t write about my friends, Leonard asked, “Who else am I supposed to be friends with? Writers are the only people I can go to dinner with who don’t talk about movies and real estate.”

Tanenhaus shrugged off the “permanent affectation of integrity” barb, remarking that he hoped the Times had rid itself of that. He then stated his case: the Times will soon be running a review by Jonathan Lethem on McEwan, despite Lethem’s admission of dining with the author, and Tanenhaus noted that it’s a superb essay. He also noted that he regrets passing on a review by the dancer Toni Bentley due to his and other Times editors’ over-concern about her acquaintances with the authors (the review ended up running in the New York Review of Books).

For Prose, ethics in book reviewing is not about relationships but rather is about good writing. “The most unethical thing to do is to write about a book boringly,” she said. Expecting book reviews to be some kind of scientifically objective consumer report, she suggested, is missing the point.

Among the panelists, only Ulin seemed to object to friends reviewing friends, stating simply that “it’s tricky.” Ulin’s take on ethics in reviewing is that a book review section has the ethical obligation to publish negative reviews and to champion books that deserve more attention.

Perhaps in an attempt to disturb the general bohhomie and to get the panelists to wrestle with the minutiae of ethics within reviewing, Romano blasted Times critic Michiko Kakutani for her review of On Chesil Beach. Tanenhaus didn’t bat an eyelash. The panelists have reached points in their careers where they are not interested in sweating the small stuff. 

Brenn Jones, NBCC member