The roster of AB bloggers includes at least two full-fledged journalists (Ruchira and now Andrew). Since its inception, Ruchira has entertained her appreciation for books by writing about them at some length, if not precisely by reviewing them. Consequently, it was no surprise to receive recently this brief alert from Ruchira:
"It is the same old story—big boys annoyed with the wannabes.
"First the MSM journalists went after political bloggers and now Adam Kirsch of NY Sun has some harsh words for literary bloggers."
I agree with Ruchira's view of the condescension of experts to their popular amateur counterparts, but I also sympathize with Kirsch's disdain for questions about the ethics of (i.e., particular to) reviewing. How absurd. Is there, likewise, an ethics of baking muffins? (Judge Easterbrook of the Seventh Circuit has complained, similarly, that there is no "law of the horse," an argument he levels against the notion of cyberlaw, a distinct body of legal rules arising from and specifically pertaining to the Internet.) But Kirsch squirms a bit, though, doesn't he, when he qualifies his response to the "no-brainer" regarding whether or not it is "ever" okay not to read an entire work in preparation for a review: "For the record, no," he writes (my emphasis). One detects that he hopes the record reflects what he believes his official opinion, independent of his actual practice, should be. But he has no guts. He knows perfectly well that there are plenty of situations in which one needn't read an entire work before preparing a review. Skip ten, or thirty, percent of the pages and you've lost nothing. There is no arcanum to be elucidated by close reading. Such may be the case with poetry and some fiction, but we often know badly written non-fiction after five pages of it, and if the point of the review is simply to give a sense of what the book is about, how well or badly it's written, and who might be interested in it—rather than to provide a critical response to the author's theses and arguments—then there's just no need to be wastefully thorough. (By the way, I am presently preparing a reviewing of a 600+ page legal text...and I'm eating up every page of it, because I'm fortunately finding it extremely interesting. But even if I weren't, I would regard my responsibility for this particular review to demand a complete reading.)
None of this is the point of Kirsch's article, really, or of Ruchira's response to it. He really misses the point if he thinks only bloggers suffer from resentment! The history of "democratized" discourse in America, including the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, is replete with resentment. Well-fashioned resentment (and anger and envy and disgust and disdain) is a joy to read; think Wilde, Hitchens, Sam Johnson (none of these, I realize, being examples of genuinely American writers, but they first came to mind). He fails to note that a lot of blogging, like a lot of published writing, is pure crap. Kirsch regards this circumstance as an "intellectual crotchet" specific to bloggers. Journalist, vet thyself!
Geoff Nunberg, who now teaches here at Berkeley, was recently on public radio ranting about Wikipedia. I'm generally disinclined to appreciate Nunberg, and I'm particularly wary of the disdain for a vaguely defined low culture his broadcast remarks imply, but I otherwise liked what I heard him say. One of the major lapses of Wikipedia he identifies, and probably of the much of the fruit of the so-called collaborative effort at gleaning and organizing knowledge, is that it is utterly not fun to read. It's committee work, indisputably the lowest form of creativity!
Now, back to Kirsch's ethics charge. I subscribe to a magazine with which Andrew is familiar, I bet. It's Cadence, out of upstate New York, a monthly collection of reviews of new recordings of "creative improvised music," along with interviews, news, etc. Cadence also happens to produce recordings under a few labels, CIMP and Cadence Jazz among them. Cadence reviews Cadence recordings. And Cadence offers Cadence recordings for sale in a catalog (printed in a microscopically tiny font) included in each issue of the magazine. Conflict of interest? Damn straight. Ethical? Who cares?
The magazine maintains that the two divisions, editorial and sales, are absolutely separate operations, yet most of the reviews in Cadence of Cadence recordings are shamelessly glowing. As a long-time subscriber, I'm just not fazed. In my experience, Cadence recordings are consistently excellent, and I enjoy learning about new ones, if only via Cadence itself. I'm perfectly capable of recognizing the conflict...but the quality of the reviews and the payoff from the records mitigates the damage. The damage may in fact be only a perception of a conflict.
Coincidentally, Mary Dudziak, at Legal History Blog, has posted about and included a link to the broadcast on C-SPAN2 BookTV of a panel of writers addressing the ethics of reviewing and the National Book Critics Circle survey about which Kirsch wrote.