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Into the Literature: Ethics, Authors, & Reviewers

ethics of book reviews

Welcome back to "The Ethics of Book Reviews"!


This is the second of 5 blog posts:


In this post, we are diving into existing literature on the roles of the reviewer, as well as the ethics of writing reviews. We are also exploring some of the ethical questions the literature says that authors should consider. Again, like in the intro post, I'll have the full references at the very end. However, I will also use in–text citations for your reference.


Now, let's dive right in!


Book Reviews & Literary Criticism


As I was doing some research, looking for some scholarly sources, I ran into plenty of sources that discussed writing reviews as a form of literary criticism. After a quick Google search, we see that the definition of the term via Oxford Languages is "the art or practice of judging and commenting on the qualities and character of literary works." Reviewing books definitely counts as literary criticism. However, I do not focus on the forms of literary criticism that relate to academia. Rather, I am solely interested in the literary criticism of novels, especially fiction novels — the type of books that I read and presumably the type you read as well since you're reading my blog.


But is there a difference, and if so, what?


Mark Wiley argued that there are indeed differences. Consider the work of a student. Any criticism is to help the student to improve, so we call this type of criticism "formative" as this type of criticism is focused on the formation of a work. On the other hand, book reviews are based on summative judgments. This is due to the fact that a published book is a finished product that will typically not receive future revisions. Thus, a reviewer will criticize such a work as the "sum" of the author's work (Sommers, 1982, as cited in Wiley, 1993, pp. 480–481).


Ethics & The Book Reviewer


Purves' Three Roles


Alan Purves outlined the following roles that book reviewers must then fulfill: the reviewer role, the gatekeeper role, and the critic role. The role of the reviewer is to judge on behalf of "the common reader . . . whether the text is worth reading or not" (Purves, 1984, as cited in Wiley, 1993, p. 481). Whereas the reviewer passes verdictive judgments, the gatekeeper passes effective judgment, akin to a student receiving a grade for their work. The differences are between the two are very subtle, but the reviewer evaluates a book's worth whereas the gatekeeper judges the book on some establised criteria. The final role is of the critic, whose task is to contextualize the book typically with regard to either the author or the author's culture (Purves, 1984, as cited in Wiley, 1993, pp. 481–482).


I must admit that these roles have a bit of a dated feel to me. Perhaps this is partially due to the fact that the word "gatekeeper" does not carry the most positive connotation. Even if there were a different term, I still feel like it would seem dated.


Regardless of how dated these roles feel, all three show up in some form in most reviews. How the first two roles, the reviewer and the gatekeeper, occur may be obvious. We, as book reviewers, determine whether we think other readers should read a book, thus fulfilling the reviewer role. Furthermore, we leave some rating, whether that is a star rating, a letter grade, or some percentage, which fulfills the gatekeeper role.


The critic role is much less obvious. In fact, I believe the critic role has evolved past its form in the '80s. In its current definition, the critic role is often absent in reviews for fantasy books.


Thus, it would behoove us to expand the definition. No longer do reviewers contextualize a book with regard to just the author or their culture. Rather, with the rise of fiction and fantasy, I believe that many reviewers contextualize a book to the setting and world that the book is set in. Therefore, in the scope of this series, I will expand the definition of the critic role to include the contexts of characters' upbring and lives, as well as the world and the culture of the book.


Based on this new definition, how reviewers fulfill the critic role becomes more apparent. Many reviewers provide commentary on characters and their choices. When a reviewer discusses why a character made a decision, they are contextualizing the character's choice based on the character themselves or on the situation at hand. This is simply one such example of how the critic role is fulfilled, but many more exist.


Perhaps you are wondering why I felt the need to expand the definition of the critic role. The main reason is to address fiction. "In reviewing fiction, there are obvious pitfalls to avoid, such as conflating the narrator and the author and assuming that characters' opinions (even those of sympathetic characters) are shared by the author" (Dooley, 2016, p. 133).  In other words, an author can write a character than does not align with their own lives, beliefs, or culture. It is because of this that it is absolutely necessary that the critic role is not restricted to the context of the author.


Ethics


This transitions nicely into discussing the ethics of writing a book review, as well as how a reviewer can write a "good" review.


As I've already discussed, a book reviewer should strive to include all three of Purves' roles (Purves, 1984, as cited in Wiley, 1993, pp. 481–482). To that end, a reviewer needs to avoid equating a character's opinions with that of the author's (Dooley, 2016, p. 133).


But what are reviewers basing their judgments on?


Ultimately, reviewers have some set of standards they are basing their review on. Not every reviewer has the same set of standards, but there is often a lot of overlap. Many ask the same type of questions. Were the characters relatable, and did their characterization make sense? Did the plot have a complete narrative arc, or were there unintentional plot holes? Did the worldbuilding make sense? Did the author have good pacing, or did it drag? Was their writing style consistent and engaging, or was the writing dry? Were there typos?


Such questions are common, but they are also subjective. Gillain Dooley (2016) makes a similar observation when she states that most standards apparently pertain to aesthetics, which is subjective, rather than ethics (p. 130). This is fine; in fact, I see no way to write a book review that is neither subjective nor based on aesthetics. However, reviewers must take care that criticism does not lead to censorship (Davis & Womack, 1998, pp. 184–185).


I now summarize the ethics of reviewing:

  1. Include all three of Purves' roles.

  2. Avoid assuming that a character's opinions are the author's opinions.

  3. Be careful that criticism does not lead to censorship.


Ethics & The Author


There is very little in any of my sources that speak directly to the ethical issues an author may face. However, Dooley provides some commentary on this topic. She first poses the question, for which she provides no clear answer, of whether an author should imply a certain set of beliefs (Dooley, 2016, p. 127). She later says that how authors treat their characters matter. Furthermore, she says that it matters if authors create dispensable characters and whether they include diverse representation (p. 130).


Next Up


It's clear that the past literature provides plenty of commentary to the ethics of reviewing yet is shockingly sparse when it comes to the ethical issues authors face.


Not to worry! We'll get into both topics more in the next two posts! I'll be supplementing those posts with personal experience and secondary experience. You can also rest assured that commentary will be much more recent. XD


Anyway, hope you liked this post! As always, drop your questions below or message me via my contact page or directly at asia.booknerd117@gmail.com!


See ya in the next post!


References


Davis, T. F., & Womack, K. (1998). Introduction: Reading literature and the ethics of criticism. Style, 32(2), 184-193. Retrieved December 2, 2023, from https://www.jstor.org/stable/42946422


Dooley, G. (2016). True or false? The role of ethics in book reviewing. Australian Humanities Review, 60(November 2016), 127-140. Retrieved December 2, 2023, from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/004839310003000306


Wiley, M. (1993). How to read a book: Reflections on the ethics of book reviewing. Journal of Advanced Composition, 13(2). Retrieved October 20, 2023, from https://www.jstor.org/stable/20865928

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