Monday, March 3, 2008

ethics of reviewing

In one of his critical essays, C S Lewis pointed out some ethical dilemmas reviewers are apt to get involved in. For instance, a reviewer once slammed one of Lewis' book in a publication and months later, the editor of the publication gave Lewis the slammer's book saying something to the effect of "Turnabout is Fairplay." Lewis didn't think it was. He declined the opportunity to review. I suppose he could have been all noble and ethical and praised his enemy's writing....but what if he honestly didn't like the work? Wouldn't people think he was being retaliatory.

In the essay, Lewis also talked about the ethics of reviewing a friend. Almost as stressing as reviewing an enemy. Again, what if one honestly likes the work? Remember the big hullabulloo years back when it was discovered that several judges "knew" which manuscripts in contests were written by their friends? Quite the todo! Especially when the judges said, "But his (my friend's) manuscript was genuinely the best of the bunch. Ah, me! dilemmas! I remember reading a comment by John Updike in which he said something to the effect of, "I haven't got the ethical strength to pan a friend. Actually, let me restate that: I have the ethics not to pan a friend."

Another thing C S Lewis mentioned in the essay -- whose title truly escapes me but which I think was called "On reviewing"-- is that a reviewer should never review a genre he does not like. Now, it's not as easy as all that to figure out what one doesn't like. Some folks are very pernicketty about their genres. But in a day and time of sub-genres, cross-genres, mixed genres....well, there is bound to be some aspect of a story that simply bothers a reviewer. My question, should the reviewer continue reading the story if it doesn't suit his rigid notions of what he expected in the genre.

I recently received a review from Daniel Ausema, a reviewer on Fantasy Forum, where he stated he didn't like the first 150 pages of Wind Follower because it was romance. He also said it was too heavy-hyandedly Christian for a Christian novel. What does one do with a reviewer like this? Interestingly, he's the only one so far who thinks the book is heavy-handed. Other christian reviewers haven't thought that at all. Strangely, secular writers don't think it is.

Fellow Juno author, feminist, atheist, and academic Sylvia Kelso will be presenting a paper on it at Swancon, an academic conference on Speculative Fiction...and at Wiscon, the feminist, alternative annual speculative conference. Check out the title of her paper: Out Of Egypt: The Palimpsest Of Speculative And Other Fiction(S) In Carole Mcdonnell’s Wind Follower. She didn't see it as heavy-handed. The Carl Brandon Society has recommended this book as one of the twelve books by Speculative Fiction writers that should be read during Black History Month 2008. They obviously didn't think of it as heavy-handed. Heck, the book has been read by a Yemeni-muslim, by several atheists, by narcissitic teenaged kids, by my angry-with-Christians-Orthodox neighbor and no one else saw the book as heavy-handed. So, what's going on?

So then, what are we to do? As artists, we value input and we are not going to say that only experts can review books properly....but it does make a person wonder.

I'll say that I'm a reviewer and I haven't always been the perfect reviewer either. I once slammed a book because the writer said something very snide about Christians. Other than the snideness the book was actually well-written. I also get pretty impatient with stories about blonde frontier types taming the west and claiming the land. But I've aged. Like a fine wine. Recently, I was reading a YA book where certain sexual issues just didn't sit right with my Christian conservative mindset. I told the editor of the publication I review for that I simply couldn't be fair to the book but there was no way I was going to slam it because my problem with the book was well....my problem. When I encounter a book or (God help me!) am in the middle of a book that I suddenly realize is not my cup of tea....well, I do the honest and ethical thing. I toss it aside and I keep my opinion to myself. After all, sometimes the problem isn't with the book...it's with the reader. And a good reviewer should be knowledgeable enough about himself, his tastes, his imperfections, and the state of the art... to fess up....instead of blaming the book. -C
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