When critical impartiality fails

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There comes a time reviewers risk becoming dangerously involved in an author’s work, too involved to maintain impartiality without exerting great and conscious self-control. Without noticing it, you become slanted. Every now and then it’s not a bad idea to remind yourself the integrity of professionalism demands lack of prior judgment – good or bad. Favorite writer or not.

We’ve all read exaggerated, glowing author blurbs bearing no resemblance to the books they praise. These are obviously exchanged for an understood return of the favor, at some later point, or a bit of cronyism that exists in all professions, particularly visible in the case of writers. Then there are established writers who use their name recognition to increase sales for a new writer – a kind gesture to the writer that just happens to screw the reader. How do you feel when you’ve spent money, invested time only to find the publicity was misleading? I feel ripped off, less inclined to trust author blurbs at all, which is actually a pretty good rule of thumb.

I believe I’m fairly equitable. Or I did, until last weekend, when I allowed myself to become overwrought after reading a scathing neither true review nor critical piece on the latest book by a personal favorite writer. A book I haven’t yet read, I hasten to add, written by an author whose stature I admire without qualification. Already in a depressed spirit, the unfair criticism was enough to catapult me over the edge. Hey, I’m human.

I’m not particularly proud of my reaction, rushing to rip the critic a new one via social media, but his piece was a sad excuse for a review. I was out for blood, reacting without benefit of forethought. Never, ever a good idea. The result was an embarrassment. Thinking about it the next day, what I did was no better than what he had, using an opportunity to belt a person in the stomach just because I could.

In my defense, what he wrote addressing the actual book encompassed barely a few lines, the rest devoted to tearing into the author’s entire oeuvre, even that writing vague and weak. This was not proper literary criticism, much less a review. I question why the publication ran the piece, the writer’s literary stature obviously the sole criterion assuring automatic acceptance, without benefit of editing. This is a dangerous precedent, one that threatens the integrity of criticism as a whole, but apparently one still very much alive and well.

The only solution assuring impartiality involves keeping in mind few to no professionally edited works are either perfect or completely without merit, at least to its intended audience. Individuals feel positively or negatively about a particular title – or author – but genuinely impartial reviews first take into account the intent of the writer and how well he or she did or did not live up to the expectations of his/her audience. Other points, such as style, voice and the highly subjective definition of literary merit are what will vary greatest from review to review, where individual reviewers have the most latitude for personal opinion.

In either case, the reader must take it all with a grain of salt. My advice? Don’t trust any single critical piece written about an author or his work. Trust the source first, before the piece. All venues are not created equally. Know the source and gain familiarity with the reviewer. Even then, keep in mind all reviewers occasionally slip and forget all this, throwing impartiality out the window. We praise, we rip apart, we get into moods.

Then we are bad. Very, very bad.

I feel like I’ve purged my sins. How about you? Well, we’ll work on you next time.

It’ll be okay. Trust me. I’m a professional.

 

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