Monday, June 18, 2012

On Book Review Ethics and the Times

I'm leaving for my annual Southern Africa trip tomorrow and am just trying to deal with a lot of catching up. For a couple of weeks I've had a couple of reviews from the Sunday New York Times Book Review sitting in my tabs. One is Jim Bouton's review of a history of the New York Yankees. The other is Al Sharpton's review of a biography of James Brown. I get the Times asking famous people to write reviews for them. And I certainly can understand why even famous people would be happy to review for the Times.

But there are ethics attached to book reviewing. I'm a member of the National Book Critics Circle and in that organization's "Tips for Successful Book Reviewing" [This may be fire-walled to non-members] Rebecca Skloot writes:

Be Ethical and Considerate: "You need to convince editors they can trust you: When in doubt, avoid requesting assignments that could possibly be interpreted as a conflict. The key here is transparency and candor. Disclosure is important" (Elizabeth Talyor, editor of the Chicago Tribune book section). An editor finding out that you had a vested interest in an author or book you reviewed (like, it was written by a friend or enemy), is a sure way to kill your reviewing career.

She also points readers to John Updike's  "Six Rules for Reviewing Books", which includes the following:

Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like.
Which brings us back to the two reviews from a couple of weeks ago. Bouton's strikes me as the least egregious. But he did play for the Yankees and was their ace back when he was a fireballing star, before he had arm injuries and became most well known for being a peripheral knuckleballer and writer who most famously produced Ball Four. Still, there is a shocking number of former players who did not win a World Series title for the Yankees and who would not thus have any real interest in how that team is portrayed in a book they are reviewing. Pat Jordan, say.

But not at all borderline is the Times' decision to ask Sharpton to review R. J. Smith's biography of James Brown and Sharpton's willingness to accept the task. In that week's "Up Front" piece, Sharpton is profiled. An excerpt: 

In his review of “The One,” RJ Smith’s biography of James Brown, the Rev. Al Sharpton describes himself as having been “like a son” to the Godfather of Soul. “I grew up part of my life in Queens,” Sharpton said in a telephone interview, “and all the kids would look over the back fence when he had a mansion in St. Albans.” Brown and Sharpton met years later at various events, but it was in 1973, backstage at Newark Symphony Hall, when they truly first connected. Brown’s son Teddy had recently died, and Sharpton’s father had walked out on the family when he was still a boy. “I became a replacement for Teddy,” Sharpton said, while Brown “became the father I lost. The only memories I have of doing things with my father are going to the Apollo to see James Brown.” In 1982, Brown and Sharpton flew to Washington to lobby President Ronald Reagan on behalf of a national holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. On the way there, Brown said: “Do me a favor. I want you to style your hair like mine.” By the time they reached Washington, Sharpton recalled, “I had my hair styled like his,” and he promised to keep it like that for as long as Brown was alive.
Whether one invokes Skloot or Updike or simply common sense, Sharpton was a wildly inappropriate choice to review that book -- good or bad, critical of Brown or hagiographical -- and even after the offer it was wildly inappropriate of him to accept the review. Over the years I've had the opportunity to review books by close friends and former mentors and no matter how good I believe my critical compass to be, no matter how how dispassionate I might think I can be, there was no way I could accept the task. (A caveat: at a certain point within the historical profession it would be nearly impossible to avoid reviewing books by people with whom you have friendly and collegial relationships; this, however, is a far cry from reviewing the book of someone you consider like a father, or brother, or sister.) Maybe Bouton and Sharpton simply don't know better. But the editors of The New York Times Book Review damned well do.