February 27, 2005

The Reviewer's Dilemma

One of the toniest publications has asked him to review the new book by a writer who is subtly but definitely more well–established than he is. His style is indistinguishable from the author’s except that they write about different continents; therefore he is considered the perfect choice of reviewer. Eagerly he opens the shipping envelope and begins reading, but twenty pages later his excitement has turned to alarm. He calls his writer friends on the phone: “I don’t like it. What am I supposed to do?”

Giving a bad review is inconceivable. If he did that, the author would surely be chosen to review a book of his someday, and would pan him in turn. And of course the author would never vote for him for a grant, prize, or fellowship, or invite him to a symposium, or accept his work for the journal he edits.

No one has any advice. It would seem from the reactions that the situation is unprecedented.

So the reviewer painfully sits down to finish the book and to struggle heroically with the most difficult of reviewing arts: the art of writing an ostensibly flattering review that winks at the knowing reader, while containing all the necessary laudatory quotes for the ads.

It doesn’t even matter if the book’s author sees through it. He’ll return the favor someday.