As book review sections of newspapers diminish daily in size and significance, and as those same newspapers publish dirges to their own demise, online reviewing sites (of just about anything) proliferate. This paradox makes our moment in history a particularly appropriate time to examine the ethics, economics and politics of reviewing. In the great democratization of reviewing that we are witnessing, anybody and everybody can become a reviewer, or what some would call an “empowered consumer.” Buy a book and you can review it on Amazon.com. In fact, you might be able to do so without even reading the book. Who would check? You do not have to be an expert or a professional, or even honest. And this applies not only to books, of course, but to anything that can be evaluated, from Toronto restaurants to Paris hotels, from DVDs to video games.
What is at stake? In a word: everything. That’s why newly published authors have learned to manipulate the so-called democratic online system, as Russell Smith recently explained in The Globe and Mail. They ask all their friends to post a positive review and high star rating—quickly. No one can afford (literally) to dismiss negative online book ratings, no matter how ill informed or badly written they might be. The reason? They actually will influence potential buyers of the book; it seems those stars are hard to ignore. Authors’ egos may still crave the positive professional review in the LRC or The Globe, but their pocketbooks require the positive Chapters/Indigo star rating.
It was not always like this—or was it? In fact, the whole context of the reviewer’s expertise and authority (and therefore the attitude toward reviewing) has changed constantly over time, even within a single culture: in England, for instance, the reviewer went from being the 18th-century Grub Street hack to the next century’s Romantic Sage and Victorian Man of Letters, to use critic Terry Eagleton’s categories. In the 20th century, we have seen the development of the modern Professional (e.g., Cyril Connolly) and the postmodern Academic as Public Intellectual (e.g., Mark Kingwell). But today, to this once professional and professionalized group, we have to add the customer reviewer, the blogger, the book club member. Expertise has now been democratized—or made irrelevant, perhaps.
Certainly what popular culture expert Jim Collins calls taste acquisition has become an industry, with media celebrities such as Oprah taking on the role of taste arbiter who, says Collins, can (just by their celebrity status) make us feel that they pass on both refined taste and thus the requisite expertise: it is just a matter of knowing where to access it (Oprah) and whom to trust (Oprah). We may even trust more the evaluations of non-professionals in a field, that is, of people like us. And, of course, expert advice usually costs money; non-expert guidance is free—something that sites like TripAdvisor.com rely upon. They may not pay you anything for your posted review, but it certainly contributes to their earning power.
We certainly do need some guidance, given the fact that we live in a world that offers us so many choices of goods and services that we can never know enough about—and therefore select from—in any intelligent manner. We need locating and sampling assistance. To whom do we turn for help? To the experts? The New York, London or Toronto literary scenes? (Many of today’s younger readers would turn to online sources rather than print, of course.) But we also get help in sorting through the morass of goods out there from Amazon.com: it knows what we like and will tell us what to buy next, given what we’ve purchased (if not, perhaps, read) in the past. And we get assistance from people in the media: Oprah, as already mentioned, through her book club, and Nancy Pearl, the book critic for National Public Radio, or the various cultural celebrities who feature annually in our own Canada Reads exercise on CBC Radio.
This kind of evaluating, however, is also a normal part of our own daily lives—and not just of teachers who have to grade essays and exams. I was reminded recently by a friend with whom I have discussed teaching for more than 20 years that many of us were educated in a system that used and implicitly valorized the “response journal,” in which we were asked to write about what we were reading on a regular basis, tracing our developing reactions. In this way we were primed to become today’s customer reviewers. This renewed emphasis on “experience” as authority made us all feel as if our opinions counted as much as those of any professional. When the internet came on the scene, there was therefore a legion of ready-made reviewers primed for action. In school, my friend also pointed out, we often did group work, so it felt natural, later on, to want to talk about books with others in groups: hence, the popularity of the book club or the virtual reading community. And obviously modern humans have always informally exchanged evaluations of restaurants and airlines, movies and TV shows.
These, then, are some of the reasons to think about reviewing at this particular time: its popularization, its ubiquity, its continuing usefulness as an instrument of discernment in an electronic and capitalist consumer culture overflowing with excess goods and services. The stakeholders in this process are obvious: the reviewer, the creator(s) of the object reviewed and us, the audience for both. The reviewer, some would say, has the least to lose; the creator or producer, the most. But the readers, as the target audience of both the book and the review of it, have a stake in this process too. What are our expectations of reviews and reviewers? Or to put it another way, what are the normative rules or even ideal qualities of reviewing?
A preliminary list of expectations about reviewing would probably include the assumption that the process will be fair, impartial, responsible, open, objective. Community standards, of course, would play a part, because what we call objective values are often judgements made by observing a work’s effects on ourselves and then estimating its value for others who share our values (as Barbara Herrnstein Smith has argued in Contingencies of Value: Alternative Perspectives for Critical Theory). Of course, there is a fine line here between community values and bias. And not even fairness is really a timeless or universal concept; personal, communal or even institutional preferences and interests always come into play.
Another reasonable expectation would be that the reviewer not be a good friend or relative or sworn enemy of the person whose work is under review. The desiderata of impartiality and disinterest would eliminate partisanship, and that would be ideal, although not likely, given the history of reviewing, where all those clichés about unscrupulous or untrained reviewers got their start. Nevertheless, we still think of impartiality as a desirable normative rule for reviews.
Even-handedness and balance would certainly be found on my list, and again this has a long history. In Alexander Pope’s 1711 “Essay on Criticism,” the advice is:
Avoid extremes; and shun the fault of such,
Who still are pleas’d too little or
Not only do reviewers, however, risk ridicule when their balanced rhetoric echoes their even-handedness, but they also can fall into the trap of the kind of over-cautious blandness that is anathema to review editors.
Let me list a few other expectations I have—and do not have. I do not expect the perpetrators of reviews to tell me how they would have written the book or acted the play better than those they reviewed. I do expect them to be conscientious—to review the whole thing, not to read the book piecemeal or to leave at the first intermission. My ideal reviewers would be open to new ideas and culturally sensitive to differences. (Pope again: “A perfect Judge will read each work of wit / With the same spirit that its author writ.”) And I would like reviewers who evaluate children’s literature to have a kind of imagination—or memory—that allows them to understand what it means to read—and be—like a child.
I realize that these are not ideologically innocent desires on my part. In fact, my interest in articulating some of these desiderata arises from my particular interest in the politics, economics and ethics of reviewing. Think about the range of reviewing practices you have witnessed over the years—outside the pages of this journal, of course. I would bet that for every even-handed, informative review, there have been at least two outright attacks and a couple of promotional puffs. Admittedly, the vituperative assaults are often the most amusing (and therefore the most often remembered—and cited). Terry Eagleton dates the rise of the scurrilous attack to the 18th-century shift in reviewing in the periodical press from genial amateurism to a kind of professionalization, the pursuit of some sort of living in what Cyril Connolly later described as the “thankless task of drowning other people’s kittens.” And the professional reviewer still comes in several varieties, ranging from the helpfully supportive to the sadistically lethal. Dale Peck’s 2004 collection of book reviews, for instance, appeared under the title Hatchet Jobs, and includes a New Republic piece that sweepingly dismisses every book written to date by Rick Moody as “pretentious, muddled, derivative, [and] bathetic”—an essay whose persistent notoriety underscores the attention-getting power of sneering rhetoric. Of course, the urge to destroy through reviewing can also express itself in the more subtle but equally damning use of understatement.
The other evaluative extreme is perhaps no more useful or no less ethically questionable: that is, reviewing as advocacy or even as promotional writing. Should reviews be a way to recruit supporters? Is it acceptable for a reviewer to be a fan to start with, or to publicly state that he or she has become a fan? Fan culture, though, is assumed to be different from most reviewing contexts. Not that fans do not review; they do, and at length, especially on websites and blogs. Fans also have expertise—and confidence, not to say boldness. And their opinions can count, big time. But the concept of formal or professional reviewing is usually presumed to operate differently. Fans are, in a way, liberated from the protocols that bind (and guide) reviewers.
This distinction raises the obvious issue of what the function of reviewing actually is or should be. Should it be a form of advocacy or even advertising? Reviews can work that way, but is that their intended function? David Carrier argues that the job of artwriting—his term for reviewing works of art within the context of the art market—is to persuade, to advertise the art. Certainly the history of book reviewing in the United States reveals the same intention: in the 19th century, publishers would send review copies of books to magazine or newspaper editors, often accompanied by prepared notices (to save the editor time, of course). Assigned reviews were likely to be laudatory if the book’s publisher advertised in the paper. Nevertheless, it was in the interests of both authors and publishers to keep up the pretense that reviews were uninfluenced and that critics worked only in the public’s interest. But pretense it was, and that pretense drove Virginia Kirkus in 1933 to set up the Kirkus Reviews, a book review company self-consciously situated outside the influence and power of the publishers. Her aim was to offer informed opinion to booksellers and, later, libraries.
This points us to yet another function of any kind of review: to inform the public, to disseminate information about what is out there. The reporting role of reviewing is part of its service function: out of the many new books to read or films to see, out of the myriad hotels to book or websites to bookmark, reviews help us choose simply by letting us know about availability and offering descriptive details. Reviews can even serve to validate simply by mentioning or commenting briefly upon a work, as we know from the history of Canadian literature in its early days. Related to this function is an implicit archiving one: the need to place on the historical record the existence of what is being reviewed—from new literary works to new ways to think about them.
Most of us, however, do not expect reviewing to simply be an informing agent; we expect explanation or, at least, commentary. As Northrop Frye, himself an important reviewer of Canadian poetry, taught us, reviewing is an interpretive activity in which understanding and the articulating of that understanding become the same thing; it is also what he called a species of translation into a different conceptual framework.
But translation or commentary is not all we want from reviews; many of us also (and perhaps primarily) want evaluation, even if we accept that those estimates of value will inevitably be subjective and contingent. If evaluation is the name of the reviewing game, on what grounds do we judge the work being reviewed? Obviously, the criteria are potentially endless, ranging from the formal/technical (the adept versus the inept; the traditional versus the innovative) to the pragmatic (the useful versus the esoteric), from appropriateness (or lack thereof) to morality (or lack thereof). It obviously depends upon what is being reviewed and where and by whom as well as for whom. Criteria are inseparable from institutional contexts: the school, the discipline, the church, the magazine and, increasingly, the website may determine them.
The larger question that this evaluating function of reviewing raises, however, is this: To what end? What is the purpose of evaluation in reviewing? Beyond the consumer-reporting function mentioned earlier, histories of reviewing emphasize the didactic role that reviews have been called upon to play, with consequences that have as often been repressive as supportive. Reviews, in the past and perhaps in some contexts today, can act as conservative forces keeping the potentially transgressive under control. Children’s books and films are most often reviewed with a didactic or even censoring eye: is this work “suitable” for children? At certain times the target audience of this pedagogical fervour has been even broader, however: in the United States in the 19th century, reviewers saw their role as that of moral preceptor, instructing women in particular about their sexual duties and sexual mores. If a novel (especially a novel) was seen to have the potential to form (or deform) the female reader’s character, the review’s function was one of suppression or correction.
Some acts of reviewing are still concerned less with teaching the public to think than with teaching it to think rightly—however that might be defined. Obviously there is potentially a fine line here between the didactic and the propagandistic. Book reviewers throughout the centuries have seen themselves as arbiters of public taste who could create for the authors of their age an informed and intelligent reading public. But they also see themselves as actively being taste makers.
But just what do we mean by “taste”? French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s monumental 1979 study, called Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, argues at great length that taste is never natural, but always (self-)interested, and that the interests involved are the direct product of our economic, familial and educational backgrounds. Tastes are strategic tools that allow us to distinguish ourselves from others through the gaining of social and cultural capital. It is in this way, he says, that we (in fact) perpetuate and reproduce the existing class structure. Within his frame of reference, although Bourdieu does not consider the function of reviewing as such, I would see reviewers as examples of what he calls need merchants, people who sell symbolic goods and services and who always see themselves as models and as guarantors of the value of their products. As purveyors of value, reviewers assess (and thereby create) distinction.
Reviewing makes distinctions; it makes judgements. The vulgar and the philistine are often named as such, as are the incompetent and the inept. Standards, reviews imply, must be maintained—be they the highest standards of thought and feeling valued by Victorian reviewers, the moral standards for women readers in 19th-century America or the academic standards of scholarship today. Whether this standard-maintaining exercise takes place in the drawing rooms of the elite or the primary school classroom, it is an exercise of authority: the power of the taste arbiter, the guardian of standards, the gate keeper is real—and with it come responsibilities.
However, as I mentioned at the start, our current cultural moment is marked by a challenging of the expert review in the name of consumer opinion. Some professional reviewers have taken this appropriation of their expert role as a positive. With the explosion of cultural judgement on the internet, argues pop music critic Carl Wilson, his traditional job of arbitration is rendered obsolete and he is liberated to find other ways of thinking and writing about music. From the point of view of readers of reviews, however, whether this democratization is a positive or a negative seems to me to depend completely upon why we consult them in the first place.
If we are seeking opinions to adopt or confirmation of our own “taste” or simply information, the vast expansion of reviewing that has come with electronic technology has been a boon. If reviews function for us as consumer reports, then the more perspectives we have, preferably by people like ourselves, the better. Those (often anonymous) reviewing websites, including Amazon.com and its ilk, serve this function well. But if we want reviews to teach us, if we want to learn more about a book, a film, a wine—its context, its particular qualities and forms—we might well want to know that the reviewer has more (or different) expertise and background knowledge than we do. The pedagogical function of reviewing, whether acting as evaluation or explanation, still arguably works for at least some of us today not unlike the way it did for the readers of the Victorian Man of Letters. Perhaps, thanks to technology, we at last have the diverse means to satisfy our different needs and thus the different demands we make of reviews and reviewing. The views of Anonymous Anyone and those of the LRC’s reviewers may simply have distinct roles to play for us. This is certainly not a cause for lament, but it is perhaps a cause for self-reflection.