An acquaintance called the other day to declare himself perched on the horns of a dilemma. One of his close friends has just published a book that my acquaintance deeply admires. He would like to review the book, but is concerned that to do so might seem mere logrolling on behalf of his friend. Should he for that reason turn down an offer to review the book? Should he review it, but declare his bias in the review? Or should he accept the assignment and write the review without acknowledging his friendship with the author?
For anyone who reviews books--and doubtless for anyone who reviews anything else, whether it be art or television or movies or architecture--these are important and difficult questions. It is almost impossible for a reviewer, especially one who works for a major publication in a major city, to avoid personal relationships with some of the men and women upon whose work he passes critical judgment. Yet the reviewer's first obligation is not to these people, but to the people who read his reviews. In order to be completely honest with the latter, is it necessary to make public confession of one's associations with the former?
Those associations may range from the intimate to the casual, and the nature of the relationships may range from the friendly to the hostile, but they can be vexingly numerous. For the book reviewer, and I am confident that this is equally true for reviewers in other areas, there are many opportunities to make the acquaintance of authors, and the temptation to take advantage of them is considerable. People are drawn into the reviewing trade, after all, by a deep love for books; it's only human that this should also involve a deep interest in the people who create them. Publishers and authors are well aware of this, and many make it a practice to offer reviewers chances to enter into personal relationships with authors.
Perhaps the most flagrant case in point is that of a well-known novelist who routinely sends reviewers extravagantly autographed copies of his new books. I have been on this gentleman's list for several years now, and have by now involuntarily acquired signed copies of five of his novels. One came to me "cordially," which is okay; but two arrived "affectionately," which strikes me as a trifle excessive from someone whose hand I once shook and with whom I once exchanged a few dozen words.
But this fellow's maneuverings are so transparent that they can be seen for precisely what they are and dealt with accordingly. It is more difficult to know where objectivity ends and subjectivity begins when, for example, one is invited to a small dinner party held in an author's honor by a publisher. These occasions, which can be quite congenial and pleasant, have as their purpose the flattering of all in attendance; the publisher wants to show his author how much he cares about him, and he wants to seduce the reviewers by placing them at the right hand of a literary god. For a reviewer to make a practice of automatically rejecting all invitations to such affairs strikes me as self-righteousness carried to an extreme; but if one does attend them, the only way to do so is with one's eyes wide open and one's guard up.
These, though, are instances of calculated efforts to win one's favor; reviewers possessed of reasonable supplies of integrity should be able to handle them without subjecting their readers to complicated apologias. The genuinely troubling cases are those involving writers who are the reviewer's personal friends, people who to one degree or another play a part in one's life. At the most intimate level, reviewing their work can entail hurting their feelings. A decade ago I gave a friend's book a respectful but mixed review; five years elapsed before we both grew up enough to repair and resume the friendship, and the experience has left me exceedingly wary.
But such matters of the psyche are between the reviewer and the author, and are not really germane to the questions raised by the person who called me the other day. What those questions boil down to is this: Is it professionally responsible to review the work of one's friends? The late L.E. Sissman thought not. He declared, as the first of 20 rules for reviewers: "Never review the work of a friend. All sorts of disasters are implicit here; a man and his work should be separate in the reviewer's mind, and the work should be his only subject. If you know the man at all well, you become confused and diffident; your praise becomes fulsome, and you fail to convey the real merits and demerits of the book to the poor reader."
Certainly those problems can arise, but the question is a bit more complicated than that. At the most practical level, few professional reviewers, writing 100 or more reviews a year, can afford to eliminate all books by all writers whom they happen to know and like. More importantly, if one's admiration for a friend's writing is genuine, unencumbered by any desire to curry that friend's favor for ulterior motives, why hide that admiration under a cloak of false objectivity? Is that a service to one's readers?
I am inclined, on balance, to think not. Certainly there are circumstances in which the most prudent course is to ask that a friend's book be assigned to another reviewer; in other circumstances, it is appropriate to review the book but with a cautionary declaration of bias. But the relationship between reviewer and reader, if it is to be mutually satisfactory, must be one of mutual trust--and that trust should be broad enough to encompass an understanding that the reviewer does not always bring perfect objectivity to his task.
Indeed, I'd argue that friendship is not the greatest trap. Sissman's second rule seems to me the one that bears closest watching: "Never review the work of an enemy. Unless you fancy yourself as public assassin, a sort of licensed literary hit man, you will instinctively avoid this poisonous practice like the plague it is." In looking for books to review, I find myself far more concerned with tracking down and eliminating those by writers whom I do not like than those by writers whom I do. When it comes to the reviewing of books, the urge for retribution often is greater than the urge for affection; the negative review with an undertone of personal spite is the one of which readers should most beware. You'll never find a declaration of bias in such a review--but you can usually smell the odor of ill feeling.