update: reviews and accountability

***[this post was corrected and revised after jmc pointed out a misconception on my part; also, links have yet to be updated]***

Last week I wrote a couple posts about the nature of book reviews, specifically on the internet, and my take on the matter of a reviewer’s responsibilities. My reasons for doing this stem from other discussions over a number of different weblogs, in particular an exchange with Jane of Dear Author. That particular discussion took place some months ago on Smart Bitches. To summarize my part of the original debate as neatly as possible, a short bit from my comment:

What really pisses me off about this is that the reviewer has no accountability.

And an excerpt from Jane’s response:

…The reviewer owes the author nothing. NOTHING. Is the author paying for the review? Is the reviewer somehow indebted to the author? How does the reviewer owe anything to the author? WHy the sense of outraged entitlement?

As you can see, I waited until the dust had settled before I posted my thoughts here. Jane commented on that post, and I responded to her comment with a clarification and a question for her. Jane didn’t respond here to my question, which of course is her right.

Right now there’s an interesting back and forth between Jane and many of her readers regarding a book she reviewed and gave a flunking grade, and a summary post about her approach to reviewing. On some aspects of this debate I agree with Jane, and on others, with her detractors. I suggest you go over there to read the whole thing if you’re interested in this greater discussion of the nature and tone of reviews. Jane ends with the observation that nobody is obliged to read her weblog or her reviews, which she writes for her personal satisfaction. Reviewing is a hobby for her and not a profession.

I stand by my position that anybody, hobbyist or professional, who makes a review public does have some responsibilities. There is an unspoken contract between the reviewer and the public. But I am also mindful of this particular definition of responsibility from Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary:

RESPONSIBILITY, n. A detachable burden easily shifted to the shoulders of God, Fate, Fortune, Luck or one’s neighbor. In the days of astrology it was customary to unload it upon a star.

I find that the nature and tone of reviews and author-reviewer interaction on the internet is evolving in a troubling direction. Part of the confusion that abounds has to do with the fact that the people discussing it (me included) have not always distinguished between matters of content and tone. My two cents: every reviewer is entitled to an opinion, which may be well or poorly argued. Every reviewer has his or her own style. I sometimes find Jane’s style and tone hostile toward the author. The only thing I can do about this personally is to first, express my opinion (which I’ve now done, ad nauseum). And of course I can vote with my feet, something that Jane suggests as well, and I will take her up on.