BEA panel asks: Do book critics need an ethics code?

The National Book Critics Circle recently surveyed reviewers about whether ethics guidelines are necessary for the industry.

Mark Lennihan/AP
Book Expo America attendees wait to have books autographed.

Just about every industry has rules and standards that its workers are expected to abide by in order to succeed at their jobs and uphold the reputation of their professions. 

Should that be the case with book critics as well?

A panel was held yesterday at this year's Book Expo America (in New York from May 28-June 1) to debate what a code of conduct for book reviewers would look like. As the journalism industry changes, standards are changing with it, including what makes up a book review, and even veterans of the business are finding the ground shifting under their feet.

The National Book Critics Circle surveyed reviewers recently and its findings will become available this fall. After that, according to Time Magazine, the NBCC will release what it considers to be best practices for critics.

NBCC board of directors member Marcela Valdes served as moderator for the panel at BEA. Participants included NPR book critic Maureen Corrigan, Paris Review editor Lorin Stein, and literary agent Eric Simonoff.

Corrigan stressed the importance of objectivity, impartiality, and fairness in book reviewing (which, she also noted, are not synonymous terms). But what gets tricky, it seems, is arriving at a common definition of these words. Exactly how impartial and objective must a critic be?

“It’s kind of the Wild West these days,” Valdes noted of the book review industry during the panel.

Some of the data from the NBCC survey was discussed during the panel as well, and it was revealed that more than 62 percent of respondents said it was acceptable for a critic to refuse to review something he or she dislikes.

Apart from our obvious stake in the matter, we’ll be interested to see what this discussion means for the literary journalism industry.

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