My friend and favorite author, Leora Krygier, raised some interesting questions about the ethics of reviewing books:
“Should reviewers disclose their leanings and prejudices, and their world view? And on the other side of the coin, what about all those reviews we authors ask our friends to write on Amazon? Should ‘friend’ connections be disclosed in honest reviewing? What about blurbs that come from authors who have the same publisher? Is that a conflict of interest? And reviews for money? Do we just stack it all up to ‘it’s okay because it’s just promotion?’ or is this an ethical issue that needs addressing?”
An ethics principle that almost always works is the “clear conscience” rule: reviewers should have a clear conscience—they shouldn’t hope that their background remains hidden. If I write a review on Amazon for Leora’s book I must disclose that she’s a friend, because there’s a clear conflict here: I hope her book succeeds and I want to write an honest review. If my publisher asks me to review a colleague’s book I have a slightly different conflict: I want to stay in my publisher’s good graces and I want to be honest. If I’m being paid for a review I want to please my patron and I want to be honest.
I’m not saying that I can’t be honest in my reviews; in fact I did love and admire Leora’s novels—only that my conflict exists. Readers are entitled to know she’s my friend. [Full disclosure: I hadn’t thought this through when I posted reviews on Amazon. I’ve just now corrected my ethical lapse.] If I’m paid by the author to write a review readers are entitled to know. Then they can decide whether to heed my review or to discount it as hopelessly biased.
As far as reviewers disclosing their world view and leanings, I don’t think so, as long as they write honestly. Their reviews can speak for themselves, and their readers can decide. I think comments can be stupid, narrow minded and offensive without being unethical. If, on the other hand, a book is panned as dull, thin, or badly written without disclosing that the reviewer is offended, for example, by homosexuality, blasphemy or sex, then the reviewer is being deceptive and unethical.
Put another way, transparency, transparency, always transparency.