DOUG NUFER: Conflict of interest? At The Stranger? For starters, let's discuss Matthew Stadler reviewing his good friend Stacey Levine. Stacey's a praiseworthy writer, but praise is cheap when reviewers review their friends. Of course, I once thought the whole point of the game was to plug books published by people you wanted favors from, and I still write about writers I know personally. Nevertheless, I don't review books when friendship, personal dislike, or professional jealousy might influence me--or even just seem to influence me--to a point where I can't give the author a fair review.
MATTHEW STADLER: I don't know what you mean by "a fair review," but I'll do anything to get an intelligent explication of a book, even if it means assigning a friend to review a friend. Look at Kirkus' "fair review" of Stacey's book if you want to see what happens when editors subscribe to the myths you're laboring under. That reviewer was so disinterested, the review was clueless and irrelevant to Stacey's work. "Fair reviews" by allegedly disinterested strangers are very often pointless, clueless things. I prefer a writer who cares deeply about a book, even if it's a friend of the author. In my review, I said up front that I knew Stacey. I made her conversations a part of the review. Did my knowing Stacey disable my ability to read her text? On the contrary, I could build relevant critical bridges into her text partly because I've had conversations with her. An informed, interested review can open readers' eyes to the pleasures of the book.
DOUG: You can disclose your connection to someone, you can even do a great job of reviewing someone you know. The problem is, it looks bad. People assume your review is compromised by your friendship. Ultimately, I think this perception of bias does your friend more harm than good.
As for objectivity, I (subjectively) don't believe anyone thinks reviews are objective, and most people past the age of 12 don't think the news is objective. You don't have to say, "I like this book because...." You can convey a favorable impression of a book by describing it faithfully, or even by just choosing to review it in the first place.
MATTHEW: The complaint that a review is "compromised by friendship" begins with the mistaken belief that lack of bias is possible and desirable. We ought to change that perception, not buy into it. We can change it by running honest, deeply interested reviews by informed people--friend, foe or stranger. You say we should only use strangers, to avoid the "perception of bias." Too bad most editors operate that way. The result is a lot of passionless, pointless reviews. You sound to me like the city prosecutor who criminalizes street people because there is a perception that they are dangerous. They're not all dangerous, but they can look that way. So do you criminalize them or challenge the perception?
As for "conveying a favorable impression," I could care less whether a reviewer likes or dislikes a book. What a smart review can offer us is not a thumbs up or down, but an apt description of the text and its relation to the world. Readers who browse through all of that asking, "well does he like the book or doesn't he?" or who would judge the value of a review by asking, "does he like or hate the book because he knows the writer?" seem to me to be clueless. If someone can excavate and make visible many aspects of a text, I'm interested. If they can't, I'm bored. I don't care what they like or don't like or who they know.
DOUG: I agree that there's no such thing as a disinterested position. Like everyone else, I'm hopelessly corrupted by my interests, circumstances, and relationships, so I try not to let this corruption taint my writing about writing. Far from buying into the idea of an ideal, uncompromised review, I figure we're bound to be compromised by all sorts of things, so it's best for reviewers to keep some distance between themselves and the writers they review.
MATTHEW: I don't think you're "corrupted" by those things, I think you're enabled by them. You'd be a dull, pointless critic if you had no interests, relationships, or circumstances. But given that those things trouble you, is there any reviewing format that engages them honestly?
DOUG: The interview/review seems to be an honest and incisive way to get into a writer's work, particularly if you have some connection to the writer. I've done it and will do it again, but I prefer to write and read reviews that don't break in with comments from the author. This is mainly because the book says what the book says, and anything the author says to explain the book is, at worst, revision after the fact, and, at best, book-chat. I might add that most book review editors would find your position to be pretty bizarre.
MATTHEW: Yes, most editors would be surprised by my argument, and I think that's one of the big reasons criticism in the U.S. is so dull and moribund. Editors spend so much energy finding objective critics to give a thumbs up or down, they end up with writers who could care less about the work, and who merely make some declaration about their own tastes. My strength of feeling is powered by the distressing situation I find myself in as an author. Editors, with few exceptions (and most of the exceptions are tainted by conflict of interest) hand my books off to strangers and ask them to say if they like the book or not. The result is plot summary punctuated by the reviewer saying if this is to his or her taste. Dull, dull, dull. I'd rather have my bitterest enemy publish a vivid dismantling of my book, or some friend unpack the book with love and care.
DOUG: I also despise the standard book review form, with its reliance on plot summary and on the thumbs up or down of the reviewer. Some of the worst examples are published in the New York Times Book Review. But I think the main problem isn't the pretense of disinterest, but the failure of the reviewer to put the book in critical context, to compare the book to other books like it and other works by the author. Unfortunately, the reviewers who can do that are often very stuffy writers.
MATTHEW: Or they're friends of the author.
DOUG: Right. It can be done well, though, even by strangers, without coming off as a snotty academic, and without turning a book review into the printed equivalent of a TV talk show.
And speaking of getting reviewed by enemies, what about this? Some years ago Michael Upchurch (our friend, for those keeping track of the conflicts of interest) reviewed a short story collection, in which he said the writer wasn't "as bad as Raymond Carver," which the author took as an unfavorable review. This author retaliated by savaging Upchurch's next book. This was an act of pure revenge. It was intellectually bankrupt and ethically vile. The only way I might allow it, as an editor, would be in the context of a Conflict of Interest supplement. In any case, I'm sure the reviewer didn't tell his editor at Seattle Weekly, where the review appeared, of his "connection" with Upchurch, or the Weekly wouldn't have printed it. And I know he didn't disclose this tidbit to his readers.
MATTHEW: Yeah, that was awful. But I wouldn't have minded at all if this enemy had disclosed the ugly past and then made a really thorough dissection of the book. Or better yet, get a friend who knows Michael's four novels to write intelligently about them. How come no one's written about all four novels? Don't you ever wonder how important books in the past managed to emerge from obscurity into importance? Mostly through friends writing intelligently about friends. They build bridges. I'm not suspicious of the impulse to write about your friends, or to befriend authors you admire; I'm suspicious of the orthodoxy that denigrates this important cultural work. We need to write critically and as broadly as possible about the books that affect us deeply, even books by people who affect us deeply. That's what the history of lit is made of.
DOUG: I think the critical passion behind the efforts to make certain neglected authors more well known was based more on intellectual interest than personal friendship. If the critic didn't think the writer was good, no amount of love would make any difference. Still, I agree, friendship happens.
Doug Nufer is an editor at Washington Free Press and the American Book Review. Matthew Stadler is the former books editor of The Stranger. They are still friends.