Irving's Until I Find You, an 824-page novel based partly on the author's relationship with his father, was panned in a July 10 review by Marianne Wiggins as a "mass of lazy, unrefined writing."
Wiggins, herself a novelist and National Book Award finalist, also declared that "The story reads as if Irving woke from a recurring nightmare and started dictating compulsively."
Wiggins wasn't the only reviewer to dislike Irving's book, but she was likely the only one once married to author Salman Rushdie, a longtime friend of Irving's. Noting that he had a personal relationship with Wiggins, Irving complained to the Post, which requires critics to sign agreements that "any contact, friendly or otherwise, with the author of this book" should be disclosed to the paper.
In an "Editor's Note" published Sunday, the Post stated: "Had we known that Irving had dedicated one of his earlier novels (A Son of the Circus) to Marianne Wiggins' ex-husband, Salman Rushdie, and had we known that Irving and Wiggins had socialized with each other in the past, we would not have made the assignment.
"We apologize to our readers for this misstep."
Like David, every time I have reviewed for The Post, I've been asked to sign a contract that indicates whether I've had any conflicts of interest. And so I also have to wonder how this could have been overlooked when the review was assigned, and why no one bothered to check until Irving himself complained.
But full disclosure -- or often, the lack thereof -- is too often a dirty little secret in the world of reviewing. How transparent should reviewers be? What constitutes a conflict of interest? These are things I think about constantly, and some of those thoughts appear after the jump.
In a perfect world, a reviewer could completely divorce his or her feelings about a book from everything else. Put it in a vacuum. Isolate it from the larger context of a genre, a literary ouevre, whatever. And make sure that he or she is only judged by the words appearing on the page.
But of course, that's not the case. In the mystery world, I think reviewers can be divided into two categories: those that mingle, and those that do not. It's a no-brainer as to which one I belong to; I don't believe I would have been able to write any review whatsoever had I not already been an active fan, participating on various internet message boards. And even when there are times when I wish I could drop back, I can't -- nor do I particularly want to. Also, here on the blog, I can be as subjective as I like -- the URL does bear my name, after all.
Yet it makes things difficult, especially in regards to my column. Luckily I only have 5 books a month to review, and so in theory, I can endeavor to pick books by people I've never met, never exchanged an email, never socialized with in any way, shape or form. But with every book I view for potential inclusion, I have to ask if there could be any sort of bias involved, things like:
If they've posted comments on my blog or we've exchanged emails
If we both frequent the same message boards or blogs (public or private)
If I've been on a panel with them, as moderator or fellow panelist
If I've gone out for drinks and the author has bought me a drink or food or whatnot
If a publicist or editor has taken me out to lunch or drinks and we talk about authors at their publishing house or list
If an author or publisher has placed an ad on my blog
Some have obvious answers, others less so. And one easy way to get around it is to review as many new authors (or at least, new/unknown to me) as possible, or not to review the same author twice in a row, or something like that. Another way, which is not really possible for me, is to take off some of the hats. Can one really be an effective book reviewer if one's also writing and editing fiction, blogging, freelancing, and socializing? Or does it work the other way around, and the reviews are enhanced by doing all those things?
That's why I titled this post the way I did. Sure, I have issues with how Marilyn Stasio reviews some books, but she's chosen (at least to the best of my knowledge) to keep herself away from the mystery world. Say what you will, but at least doesn't have to struggle with the kinds of questions I do.
It's possible I'm making a bigger deal of this than I should, but there are two things at work in my mind: first, I grew up with the concept of marat eyin, or making sure not to do things -- no matter how innocuous -- where others can obviously judge you to be a worse person than you are. Sometimes I don't care what others think, but it's usually a conscious choice made after weighing pros and cons. But when your actions affect others -- and in the case of book reviewing, your words definitely affect others -- I'd rather err on the side of caution.
Second, when I see a review -- literary, genre or otherwise -- written by someone who has such an obvious conflict of interest, or even a less obvious one (like the time a review roundup by one noted critic included the book of his on-again, off-again significant other) -- it annoys me. Because with so many books out there that merit attention, why put yourself in the position that someone can judge you about conflicts of interest?
So let me put it to you: do any of these things even come into play when you're reviewing a book or more importantly, reading a review? Is it even fair of me to make distinctions between what I post on the blog (obviously subjective) or what's in my column (objective by appearance)? Or is there a reason hardly anyone else asks these particular questions?