I suppose every writer has written about another writer at least once. We do it without thinking about ethics. We write about writers we like and don’t like, who write elegantly and who write ghastly. Sometimes we write about how embarrassing it must be for a president who can’t spell, uses all CAPS as a weapon, and thinks syntax is unconstituted by the supremely court.
Whenever, however, and about whomever we write, we should follow the first ethical rule of writing book reviews: write nicely. Remember what your mother said about talking about other people: if you can’t say something nice, bite your tongue.
Some writers make a living writing book reviews. They deserve special attention because they work hard to make bad writing sound nice and good writing sound lame. Other writers are editors who prove what is so often said about editors: most editors are failed writers. But then again, so are most writers.
To blurb or not to blurb. That is an author’s question. We all ask famous folk—or at least reputable folk—to write a blurb for the back covers of our books to enhance sales. That kind of writing need not be necessarily true, relevant, material or even based on the book’s actual content. It has to be nice at a minimum and should be loyal and indisputable, as in Barack Obama‘s blurb on the back cover of Michelle’s last book: “This is the best book I ever read.”
Writing teachers are betwixt and between ethics when they comment on student submissions. On the one hand, they cannot say the writing was perfect because that would raise doubt about their ability to read. On the other hand, they cannot say it smelled of something found in septic tanks when they overflow. The ethical norm is to comment on the curve, not at the top, nor at the bottom—maybe equatorial.
The famous Round Table at The Algonquin Hotel uttered thousands of bon mots and wisecracks interspersed with critiques of other writers. Dorothy Parker’s claim that “you can’t teach an old dogma new tricks” was giggly.
The journalist and poet, Alice Duer Miller, loved the battle of wits at the Algonquin and called it a mere sideshow to the real battlefront for feminists like herself. Some say the Round Table’s constant criticism inspired her 1915 collection, “Are Women People?,” in which she ridiculed anti-suffragist arguments and progressives’ blind spots, like those that kept Woodrow Wilson from endorsing a woman’s right to vote during his first term.
For some reviewers, cruelty is a common way to pan a bad book. Writing a cruel review says as much about the reviewer as it does the author. Readers ought to take cruelty with a grain of salt and ask two questions:
- What is the purpose of a book review?
2. Is it their job to see to it that bad books should not be read, much less purchased?
Maybe cruel reviewers didn’t have nice mothers.
Literary criticism is the comparison, analysis, interpretation, and evaluation of works of literature. But literary criticism is an opinion; it is neither true nor false. Those historical ethical norms do not apply to critics. What then is available as norms for book critics?
“In light of ethical literary criticism, moral enlightenment and education are literature’s primary function, while aesthetic appreciation is merely second to it. Specifically, ethical literary criticism seeks to unpack the ethical features of literary works, to describe characters and their lives from the vantage point of ethics, and to make ethical judgments about them.”
Assessing the ethical parameters of writing extends beyond mere writing. It includes assessing the ethicality of the end product—whether article, short story, book, or screed. Reviews and critiques are valuable because they make the writing a known quantity. Book reviewers reduce the risk to readers that a specific book might not be what the reader had in mind or can stomach. If the reviewer reacts poorly then readers might understandably react similarly. That likelihood demands an ethical test for the reviewer, not the writer. Reviewers should write in ways that do not mislead readers. How about that for an ethical norm?
I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.
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 Nie Zhenzhao. “Towards an Ethical Literary Criticism.” Published Online—May 22, 2015. Nie Zhenzhao