When the Book Review of Record Puts Their Thumb on the Scale
We could use a little more transparency from the New York Times Book Review
This week I’m grateful to have created this platform because I can write about something in a way I probably wouldn’t be allowed to do at the Chicago Tribune.
The New York Times Book Review has a unique place in our culture as a kind of arbiter of what is or is not worth paying attention to, and when we pay attention to these things, what we should think about them. Calling the Times the “paper of record” is both a compliment and a charge of responsibility. If you are embracing the identity of arbiter, you need to go above and beyond when it comes to issuing your judgment.
At least that’s what I think.
Additionally, while the New York Times Book Review does not have the sales juice of being picked by Reese or Oprah or Jenna, a positive review carries significant cultural weight in a way unmatched by any other publication. This is just a fact.
This week, the choice of reviewers for two books put the thumb on the scale before word one of the reviews were written, and those choices titled the scale in the same political direction. They also do not practice what I believe is sufficient transparency in revealing how these choices influence the reviews.
I will admit that this was so obvious to me because my politics run in the opposite direction from these choices, and I will stipulate from the outset that the choice of who to have review a potentially controversial book is fraught and in some cases could really put a publication in a no win situation. But those situations are why I think making sure the reviews include greater transparency is even more important.
One example is a review by John McWhorter of Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy’s collection of essays, Say it Loud! On Race, Law History, and Culture. Kennedy, who is Black, is a famously “heterodox” scholar and writer on issues of race, and has a long and interesting history of contributing to these debates, while also being a major figure in legal scholarship. This is why his work has been collected into a compendium.
Do you know who else is Black and a famously “heterodox” writer on issues of race? John McWhorter! Assigning McWhorter to review Kennedy’s book is essentially guaranteeing a highly sympathetic treatment to the book. It is like asking Popeye’s good friend Wimpy to review a new burger joint. There’s perhaps a small chance that someone whose ideological framework is nearly perfectly aligned with the point of view of the author will not take to the text, but the odds are very low.
Imagine instead if the review had been assigned to Kimberlé Crenshaw, herself a professor of law (at Columbia, where McWhorter teaches linguistics), and one of the pioneering scholars of critical race theory. I can hear the cries of “bias” now, even though I am certain that Crenshaw would bring every bit of erudition and care as McWhorter. Would Crenshaw be a biased choice and McWhorter isn’t?
McWhorter’s review is essentially, “This dude is right about everything.” Crenshaw’s (I’m guessing) would be more along the lines of “This is a worthwhile contribution to the discussion, but here’s where I think he’s wrong.”
Please understand, I am not criticizing McWhorter’s integrity in the slightest. He is calling them exactly as he sees them, and his opinion is absolutely worth taking into account. I also wouldn’t argue that Crenshaw should have reviewed the book instead of McWhorter. (Though it would be interesting to hear her perspective given it’s likely to differ.) That would merely be putting your thumb on the other side of the scale.
My beef (Wimpy callback!) is that the New York Times Book Review does not require the reviewers to reveal what I call the “positioning” of the writer to the subject at hand in their review. I think this withholds information from the readership which may be useful to that readership.
As part of the paper of record, the New York Times benefits from an imprimatur of objectivity, while making editorial choices in these cases that virtually guarantee a particular slant.
As a teacher of writing, I present to my students what I think of as the myth of objectivity. Students are often conditioned to believe that the writer’s job is to convey their own argument in as objective a manner as possible as a way to maintain their credibility. But we well know that objectivity isn’t possible, and attempts to give appearance of objectivity often result in distortions, as we see with the common practice of “both sides” journalism, where a reporter will twist themselves into knots to create balance between two opposing sides, even when there is no balance to be found.
Journalism professor Jay Rosen often catalogues instances of this caused by what he calls “asymmetrical polarization,” where one side of the debate is so extreme that comparing it to the less extreme side creates a distorted false balance.
In my view, the solution to this dilemma, particularly when it comes to something like book reviews is to jettison the appearance of objectivity and instead embrace a different set of values: “openness,” “transparency,” “fairness,” and “accuracy.”
Essentially, the writer must be open to changing their mind based on their encounter with the text as they do their best to convey the argument of the original author as fairly and accurately as possible, while also revealing to the audience where the reviewer, personally, is coming from on all this stuff.
You can think of the last several paragraphs of me sharing my positioning on the role of “objectivity” in journalism and reviewing. The opening chapter of my book Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities is essentially me telling the audience all the ways I do not come at the issues I tackle in the book as an objective arbiter. I am a passionate, experienced practitioner with a specific point of view, for better or worse.
In my view, an assumed objectivity is not only a disservice to the reader because you’re withholding information, but because it results in boring writing. As a reader, I would always rather just have the writer’s cards on the table and go from there.
The McWhorter/Kennedy pairing is not even the most egregious example of tipping the scales through choice of reviewer in the Times this week. That honor goes to the assignment of Jesse Singal to review Helen Joyce’s Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality. Joyce is part of the so-called “trans exclusionary radical feminist” (TERF) movement that’s very prominent in her home country of Great Britain, and includes J.K. Rowling. Trans writers have long been critical of Joyce’s work as an editor at The Economist, platforming anti-trans views.
Singal is well-established as a critic of the trans community, which holds plenty of enmity for him in return. Many members of the trans community consider him an anti-trans bigot.
If you want to give a positive hearing to what Helen Joyce has to say, there is no better choice than Jesse Singal. It is impossible to see that choice as anything other than an editorial endorsement of Singal and Joyce’s point of view.
Even worse, Singal practices some transparency in the review declaring “Joyce and I have corresponded sporadically over the years, and we got dinner when she was in New York City in 2020.”
I’m sorry, but in my view, this is a disqualifying conflict for a review of that book.
Aside from what I think is a conflict, as with the previous case, I wouldn't argue that Singal should definitively not review Joyce’s book, but again, the outcome of the review is predicted by the choice. That seems deliberate to me. Even the choice to review the book, published back in July, and which was primarily written for a UK audience and previously had received little notice here feels like a deliberate choice to send some kind of message into the world.
Maybe I’m investing the Times with more power and influence than it deserves and I’m a fuddy-duddy who is only complaining because my politics run the opposite direction of those reviewers. It’s possible.
But whatever, it stuck in my craw, and why bother having a newsletter if not using it to trot out one’s personal pique for a captive audience!
My column this week is about how to deal with the supply chain problems that are likely to attack the book publishing industry during the holiday gift giving season.
For an object lesson in the power of choice of reviewer, compare and contrast the dueling reviews of Andrew Sullivan’s compendium of writing as reviewed by fellow never-Trump conservative David French in the New York Times, and by Dale Peck, who practices almost too much transparency about his feelings for Sullivan, in The Baffler. (Very salty language warning for that second link.)
If you’re reading this around when it’s scheduled to arrive in your inbox, and you live in the Chicago area, it’s not too late to catch day 2 of Printers Row Lit Fest. It’s not clear to me why I’m never invited, but that’s the truth.
Lincoln Michel, author of the forthcoming sci-fi novel The Body Scout, has been keeping a fun newsletter of his own where he catalogues interesting aspects of the writing life. His most recent post looks at Zadie Smith’s method for writing a novel in which she revises the first 20 pages until they’re perfect.
Lit Hub rounds up the film and TV adaptations that they recommend watching this month, including the adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, which someone has probably been trying to do forever.
You can tune-in to a virtual event with Colson Whitehead in conversation with my friend Vinson Cunningham at the 92nd Street Y on Tuesday, Sep 14, the release day for Whitehead’s new novel, Harlem Shuffle. It cost you a double sawbuck for the privilege.
Is there a perfect shape for books? Molly Templeton explores the question at Tor.com.
I agree with Jennifer Croft that translators should be named on book covers.
Can’t go a week without a list of “must-read” books. This one is 45 titles long, covers the fall and comes from Town & Country.
All links to books on these posts go to The Biblioracle Recommends bookshop at Bookshop.org. Affiliate income for purchases through the bookshop goes to Open Books in Chicago. Really nice jump to $157.55 this week.
If you’d like to see every book I’ve recommended in this space this year, check out my list of 2021 Recommendations at the Bookshop.org bookshop.
As always, recommendations are open for business. Wait times are minimal.
1. The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
2. Joy in the Morning by Betty Smith
3. Jamesland by Michelle Huneven
4. Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir
5. This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor by Adam Kay
Jamie G. - Crystal Lake, IL
Alice McDermott’s Charming Billy is the kind of novel you settle in with on a rainy day for a few hours, read straight through, and emerge quite glad to have spent a few hours in its company.
1. The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charle
2. A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler
3. Wild Women and the Blues by Denny Bryce
4. The Bestseller by Olivia Goldsmith
5. The Satapur Moonstone by Sujata Massey
Sheila T. - Brookfield, IL
For Sheila, a nice, satisfying, character-driven historical novel, Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline.
Enjoy the rest of the weekend, and if you do go to Printers Row Fest, say hi to my friends at Belt Publishing in the small press tent.