A while back Jonathan McCalmont posted a little something about the ethics of book porn. Basically, the perspective he took is that when a blogger receives review copies from various publishing houses and then posts pictures of the books said blogger is explicitly engaging in publicity for the various publishing houses.
I’m projecting, but I don’t believe many bloggers will disagree with that perspective. The argument I have seen from various bloggers is that some of us receive more books than can be reasonably reviewed, let alone reviewed within a couple of months. So, to recognize the “generosity” of the publishers and to perhaps actively provide a little but of publicity, some bloggers will post pictures of the books. Most commonly this is called Book Porn.
It is fun (for some) to do and I know I enjoy looking at pictures of stacks of books. Old books, new books, skinny books, fat books. Books, books, books, we like books.
McCalmont’s problem is that he does not see the role of a critic is to engage in free publicity. Yes, a review of a book is publicity (negative or positive, it allows for a conversation about a book), but a review will (or should) engage critically with the text of a book and inform the reader of the review on whether or not a book is successful at whatever it is the critic feels the book should be doing. At this point I am putting some words into the mouth of McCalmont, so please see his post to read exactly what he said, but I think I am fairly well covering the essence. If not, the errors are mine.
If I am reading McCalmont’s post correct, he does not believe it is ethically appropriate to engage in publicity for a publisher on one hand and then attempt to critically analyze on the other hand. The publicity undermines the criticism.
I’ve thought about this quite a bit since I first read that post, flipping back and forth between what exactly I think about this.
I think there is a very fine line to tread here.
The easy way to not cross that ethical line in becoming a publisher’s shill is simply to not engage in any discourse or behavior that is not actively critical. By critical I don’t mean negative, but if we don’t provide free publicity without doing the work of a critic, then there will never be any semblance of a conflict of interest.
On the other hand, if we are being honest, most of us are also “fans” of the genre. Right now I am writing specifically about SFF, but in general this can apply to anything, not even just books at all. While we may not wish to simply parrot out the publicity statement of a publisher, we may be excited about a forthcoming release and we may want to write something non-critical about the forthcoming Matthew Stover novel Caine Black Knife, or the forthcoming zombie anthology from John Joseph Adams. We are engaging in publicity because we are talking about something without engaging the text itself (which, unless we have an ARC in our grubby little hands, we haven’t read yet). Is this wrong? Is this ethically questionable as a critic?
What about as a reviewer? Is there a difference?
Granted, if one does not really consider oneself a critic or even a reviewer, then this conversation does not apply. Personally, I’m not sure I have the tools to be a serious critic and engage the text on a variety of levels. I’ve read some serious criticism and I just don’t know that I can do that or even think of that. I do, however, consider myself a reviewer. I try to cover what the text says and on a good day engage beyond the most superficial levels. Describe a bit about the plot when appropriate but also write about the quality of the book in the best way I have available to me. I try to take what I do seriously, though some reviews are quite obviously far more serious than others with a great level of detail and care.
So, this question of ethics concerns me.
My opinion falls somewhere in between a hardline “no publicity” stance and a “post it all!” position. Reviewers, even critics, should still be permitted to discuss and anticipate in public books that they are interested in and anticipate without engaging with them critically. The line there should be obvious when it’s just people talking and when it is a critical evaluation. When we engage in this anticipatory conversation we are generally talking about stuff we think might not suck, or conversely, what will suck. On the other hand, I don’t feel it is appropriate to simply repost the text of a publicity statement (though it is obvious that it is publicity).
Book Porn? I’m on the fence, but I’m leaning towards not doing it, or “reportage” about what I’ve received, at all. I think the line is too fuzzy and if I am attempting to be serious about the reviews I do I’m not sure if this is something I am prepared to engage in. But I can be convinced because my mind is not at all settled on this matter. Maybe it doesn't matter.
But I wonder, if I write about Shadow Unit and talk about it as a fan on this blog and post when new episodes are up, I’m engaging in publicity, I know I am. Ethically, what does this say (if anything) about me as a reviewer?