Friday, September 12, 2008


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?


Gail O'Connor said...

I really hadn't given the matter much thought until Jonathan posted about it, but like you I've been thinking about it since his post.

I don't really care for book porn posts, mostly because they're basically low-content filler. Slow day? Post a photo of the free stuff you've gotten recently.

Some bloggers offer the photo without comment, while others seem to try to say something positive about the books. And it bothers me a bit when they do, because they haven't actually read the books, and it's kind of tacky to say good things about a product you haven't actually tried.

Nor have I ever seen such a blogger say they don't intend to read a particular book because they think the writer is crap. And yet sometimes they are probably thinking that, aren't they? Or perhaps I'm more opinionated than most people.

However, I don't think that most of the book bloggers really mean anything when they post photos of recent arrivals--it's just a way to fill a little space on the blog.

Unknown said...

This is an interesting question and an important one. Since print book reviews are rapidly going the way of the dinosaur, internet reviews are going to be how it's done in the future. So how we answer this question matters.

Personally, I enjoy photos of piles of books. I'll grant you that they are essentially porn. (What can I say? Porn in all its many forms is quite popular.) I've not put any up, but they're fine as filler material in my opinion. They are publicity true, but they're also a service to many readers, like me, who enjoy SFF but don't read that much of it. There have been many books posted in pile pictures that I was unaware of and later checked out.

I think that is different from posting a positive review that you don't believe in. One should only post reviews that are completely honest. Do you risk not getting any more free books if you post a negative review? You probably do.

I write as someone who has just recieved his third free book after almost a year of blogging. It's great to get free books, I admit it. But I'm not saying anything about them that I don't believe. Fortunately, I liked the first two quite a bit. But the third one that just arrived, frankly, does not look that promising.

I don't know yet, what I'm going to do with it.

Joe said...

Don't get me wrong, I do love pictures of books. I'm just starting to wonder what purpose my posting them will serve.

Larry Nolen said...

I post them (along with the books I purchase) to serve several purposes. One is merely to showcase my acquisitions, in case any are interested in that. Another is to comment briefly on occasion what it is that I receive. And a rarely-stated but essential third purpose is to show a compare/contrast - note what I receive and what I buy are usually very, very different. Compare that to what I list as what I'm reading. It's a way of allowing for there to be discussion, if others are up for that.

So I likely will continue to do it, for the reasons stated above.