True or False? The Role of Ethics in Book Reviewing

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Can (or should) literary criticism ever be entirely free of ethical judgement? I recall raising the question with one of my lecturers in Honours English two decades ago. I can still see his faraway look, as if he were trying to decide whether or not
    ©  Australian Humanities Review   60 (November 2016). ISSN: 1325 8338 127-40 True or False? The Role of Ethics in Book Reviewing Gillian Dooley AN ,  OR SHOULD ,  LITERARY CRITICISM EVER BE ENTIRELY FREE OF ETHICAL JUDGEMENT ? And what does it mean to talk about the place of ethics in criticism? As a literary scholar with an interest in a wide range of fiction in English, and a book reviewer, I am implicitly confronted with these questions whenever I set out to write about literature in either essay or review form. Although the book review and the literary essay are different types of endeavour in many ways, this problem is common to both. The compass of the ethical is, of course, broad, but the kind of questions I have in mind include whether the critic believes that an author has a duty to express or imply a particular set of social or political beliefs, or even that an author must not do so. They can especially bedevil criticism of historical works. Is it legitimate to criticise Jane Austen for failing to write more about the slaves in the West Indies upon whom the comfortable existence of the Bertram family in Mansfield Park   depends? If Charles Dickens was sexist, should we excuse him because of the prevailing attitudes of his time? A whole critical tradition of reassessing classics of literature has examined these questions and it can be enlightening if it is done with subtlety and sensitivity to the prevailing morality at the time the works were written: judging literary works out of their historical context can never be either useful or fair. C  128  Gillian Dooley / True or False? The Role of Ethics in Book Reviewing Beyond the ethical interpretations of what novels are about  , there is a body of literary and philosophical scholarship which proposes that the act of reading is in itself a means of moral improvement. Wayne Booth, in The Company We Keep , proposes that reading makes us better people by promoting empathy with literary characters. Further, he asks himself the very question with which I began this essay, and responds in the affirmative: even those critics who work hard to purge themselves of all but the most abstract formal interest turn out to have an ethical program in mind — a belief that a given way of reading, or a given kind of genuine literature, is what will do us most good. (5) Si mon Stow, writing about the heated ‘ethical criticism debate’ between Booth, Richard Posner and Martha Nussbaum, remarks that ‘there is something irresistibly appealing about having something as pleasurable as reading also be  good for us   as well’ (194). Wh at he believes these writers all ignore, however, is the extent to which their unstated and perhaps unacknowledged political beliefs colour their attitudes to the question of how, and how far, ethics should affect literary criticism. This is a question that should give any thoughtful cultural critic pause. Stanley Cavell writes, ‘The problem of the critic, as of the artist, is not to discount his ( sic ) subjectivity, but to include it; not to overcome it in agreement, but to master it in exemplary ways’ (94). Quite what it means to master one’s subjectivity ‘in exemplary ways’ is something I will attempt to untangle.   There is, in a sense, more at stake when one’s subject is a recent book by a contemporary writer. Authors are likely to read and react to the reviews which come out in newspapers and magazines following publication of their work. Critics may, therefore, have a direct influence, for good or ill, on an author’s work and indeed their morale. For this reason, I will restrict my remarks in this essay to the specific context of reviews published in edited periodicals, either newspapers, magazines or scholarly journals, in response to the publication of a book, rather than scholarly literary criticism in peer-reviewed articles or monographs on the one hand, or crowd-sourced commentary on sites like Goodreads on the other hand. I don’t intend to discuss ‘external’ questions, like whether you should review a friend’s book, or whether you should be influenced by an author’s reputation. I am interested in the judgements a reviewer makes about a book, and whether those judgements can ever be free of any ethical stance. The definition of ‘ethics’ I want to rely on is simply that in the  Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary  : ‘moral principles; rules of conduct’, where ‘moral’ means ‘concerned with accepted rules and standards of human behaviour’. In this context, I am interested in the ethical standards that a reviewer, explicitly or implicitly, uses to judge a book and its author. Basically, I am referring to the   Australian Humanities Review (November 2016) 129   question of the reviewer’s idea of what a literary work should do, rather than what it should be. I have been in the reviewing game now for about 15 years. There have been stretches of weeks or months over the past decade when I rarely had fewer than five books on my reviewing pile, with each deadline springing up to replace the last with a regularity that I remember finding reassuring. I have also been a book reviews editor for two very different periodicals — a locally-published monthly magazine and an academic literary journal. I relished the challenge of finding a good match between book and reviewer, and bore the drudgery of copy-editing without too much complaint. I don’t enjoy conflict  , so the inevitable stoushes made me want to crawl into a hole and hide, but I have usually done what I could to defend the reviewer against the angry author, and taken it on the chin if it was genuine editorial misjudgement. But I rarely feel the need to apologise to an author for a review I have written or published, even though reviews can fracture friendships and sever collegial bonds. While I have written hundreds of reviews and edited more, and have conducted classes on review- writing, I haven’t spent much time theorising about book reviews, much less formulating lists of rules. I’ve reviewed a range of general non - fiction, but mostly I’ve covered fiction and creative non -fiction, and it is these reviews that concern me here. The best reviews of creative writing speak to me personally. They follow no predictable formula. In defiance of the various rule-makers — and lists of rules are easily found on the Internet  —as both reader and editor I don’t care whether they discuss the epigraph, the title, the author’s previous work, the voicing, the technique, the editing, or any other specific aspect of a book. They can include some plot summary, as long as it serves the needs of the review; and this may be controversial, but I can’t see why disclosing the ending of a novel is so frowned -upon. What I do care about is whether reviewers express their opinions about the book and give some idea why they think as they do. Kerryn Goldsworthy, in her blog Still Life with Cat  , rather than formulating a list of rules, sets out a list of people to whom the reviewer has a responsibility . She prefaces it by saying ‘ It was a list whose length surprised even me ’ : it includes the review’s readers, the book’s potential readers, the author of the book, the editor and the publication who have requested the review, literary culture in general, and yourself. Some of these responsibilities are concerned with conducting oneself professionally, but under ‘the writer(s) or editor(s) of the book in question’, she includes, ‘ to read the book carefully and comment on it thoughtfully; … not to misrepresent it, and … not to say anything that will actually make them want to slash their wrists ’.  To yourself,  130  Gillian Dooley / True or False? The Role of Ethics in Book Reviewing she writes, you have a responsibility ‘to refuse to say anything you don’t mean’. In a book review, in contrast to academic literary criticism , ‘saying what you mean’ involves providing an explicit evaluation of the work. Without evaluation, a review is either pure description or waffle and is of little use or interest to readers. To make an evaluation which, however subjective it may be, is still fair, it is essential to let the book approach you as much on its own terms as possible, giving it time to open itself up to you before deciding what you think. Delaying the decision (‘decide’ comes from Latin de  + caedere   = ‘to cut off’) is vital if y ou are going to write a fair review. Deciding what   you think comes first for me, before deciding why    you think it. And that doesn’t work if you have a checklist of explicit criteria to measure the work against. Nevertheless, a review is in important ways a judgement of value and therefore the critic must have a set of standards, however inchoate and unacknowledged. Many of these standards are — or at least appear to be — in the realm of aesthetics rather than ethics: questions of structure, plotting, narrative pacing and so on. Characterisation might seem a purely aesthetic issue as well, but this is where ethics begins to show. It can be a matter of how authors ‘treat’ their characters: whether they invent ‘dispensable’ people— particularly common in crime fiction — whether they include or exclude minority groups, or treat them with respect. The question of the author’s relation to their material is also important, particularly when the work is in the form of memoir. As I have noted, there is much advice available for would-be reviewers. Scanning the Internet offerings on ‘how to write a book review’, perhaps the most immediately appealing advice I found was, ‘ Review the book you read — not the book you wish the author had written’ (Asenjo). But like many seemingly  common-sense statements, on further thought this injunction might have little practical meaning. One could certainly take the author’s intentions into account (  pace  Wimsatt and Beardsley 1 ) if they are obvious or easily discoverable, but one might still legitimately deplore the nature of the book the author has chosen to write, and express a wish they had used their talents in another way. An obvious example of the imposition of a critic’s moral view on the whole conception of a novel is a review of Amy T . Matthews’ End of the Night Girl (2011). Matthew’s novel has a double narrative in which a present  -day Adelaide waiter, Molly, is obsessed by an account which she is herself writing of a young Polish victim of the Holocaust. It is a novel of great subtlety and moral complexity, and, in Matthews’ own words, ‘is  in essence …  a novel about the ethics of fictionalising 1  William K. Wimsatt, and  Monroe C. Beardsley argued in their influential article ‘The Intentional Fallacy ’  that ‘the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art.’   Australian Humanities Review (November 2016) 131   the Holocaust’ (Dooley, ‘Walking’). This is difficult and contested territory, as Matthews is well aware, and to some degree, critical misgivings might be anticipated. Esther Marion points out that ‘writing on the Nazi genocide has been marked by the tension between rupture and continuity’, and there is certainly an acknowledgement of this tension in Matthews’ novel . I was therefore taken aback by what Christopher Bantick wrote in the  Australian : ‘this is a bold novel, yet I can’t help thinking Matthews should have written a stand -alone story about the Holocaust and not attempted to splice the contemporary with the historical. Gienia’s story matters; Molly’s does not  ’ (22 , emphasis added). Until the last sentence this could have been a criticism of a risky undertaking which failed for aesthetic or technical reasons. But to explicitly discount the value of one woman’s life like this is questionable, especially when the novel is itself a struggle with the ethics of writing about great suffering from a position of safety and privilege. But am I immune to making similarly questionable ethical judgements? In 2012, I reviewed the thriller Thirst   by L.A. Larkin, set in Antarctica. This book conformed to every stereotype of the genre — in fact I based my review on these stereotypes: The story proceeds from predicament to predicament, clichés mounting till they threaten to bury us in an avalanche. The dialogue is stilted, the heroics are overdone, the environmental preaching heavy-handed. My impatience with the thriller genre is palpable in my review. A book like this is, clearly, written to very specific formula and aims only for light entertainment. However, there was more to my objection than irritation with generic conventions: For me, the biggest surprise about this book came at the very end, when I read the author’s bio and found that the writer (with a carefully non -gender-specific name) is actually female. I suppose one could read a small victory for feminism into a woman making inroads into a male-dominated genre, but even that is undercut by the confirmation of gender stereotypes at every turn. OK, Maddie is tough, but she has to depend on Luke to save her life. Of course, one could argue that this is a thriller, not a tract. But there is explicit moralising throughout, and it is a little disappointing that in Larkin’s imagination we still need a maladjusted six foot three male to save the world. My criticism here could be boiled down to my exasperation with a female author colluding in the sexism of the thriller genre. If the book had been written by a male author, my review would still have expressed impatience with the stereotypes and the tedious predictability of the sensational plot. The sex of the author added
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