The Review That Never Was

Hi Margo,


What author would like a review that starts out, “How many ways can you define ‘superficial’?” Surely not Mitch Albom, whose new book, “The Five People You Meet in Heaven,” was so described by Carlo Wolff in the 1,000-word piece he wrote on assignment for the Detroit Free Press, where Albom works as a sports columnist. Albom, the wildly successful author of “Tuesdays With Morrie,” may have played no part in what happened after the piece was turned in. But according to Wolff, the critical review was originally scheduled for prominent play Sept. 21, two days before the book hit the stores. Then he was told it was postponed, and after being edited to soften the criticism, the original wording was restored. Finally, he discovered that the top editor had yanked the review, announcing that Freep policy was not to review its own staffers’ books. My own attempt to reach the Free Press’ assigning editor, Sharon Wilmore, has produced no response.


Wolff is ticked — not so much about the $200 fee, which he says the Free Press has promised to pay (as any book critic will tell you, it’s not the money, because there’s never enough to fight over). Rather, Wolff, a freelance critic who sunlights as features editor for a trade publication, accuses the Freep of a “major ethical breach” for pulling a review because the top brass didn’t like what it said.


So here’s my two cents: First, a writer whose last book sold 5 million copies doesn’t need to worry about one snippy review, even if it appears in his own paper. Secondly, the unfortunate way this review was handled speaks to where book criticism stands in the average newsroom. Low pay and low status go hand in hand.


So whajja think? Is this an “ethical breach”? (It’s instructive that the paper, bending in the other direction, ran a features story Sept. 19 that talked about which bookstores were lucky enough to get Albom to sign.) Meanwhile, as sometimes happens, Chauncey Mabe at the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel gladly snapped up the “review that never was” and gilded THAT lily with a piece about what the Freep had done, in which you are quoted (registration required on both links). So how would you have solved this imbroglio?

Dear Ellen,


Like I told Chauncy Mabe, I don’t think killing the review of Albom’s book was an ethical misstep. I think it was a bad business call. It made the Detroit Free Press look small — and for that matter Mitch Albom, too.


But book editors are not obliged to run every review that they commission. I have killed reviews because I thought they were too harsh (never one of a book written by a staffer, but then that has never come up). I think fairness is a consideration in book reviews, just as it is in news stories. I have a policy never to run totally negative reviews of first novels, for example. Why tell people not to read a book by an author they never heard of and probably never will? We have too little space for that.


But, as I also told Mabe, I can sympathize with the editors’ angst over running a negative review of a book by one of their own — even though I don’t agree with their final decision. It’s one thing to run a negative review of a book by someone you’ll never meet, and another thing to run one of a book by someone you have to face at the water cooler the next morning. Every time I’ve had to review a book by one of our staffers, I have sent it out and prayed that the reviewer would like it. Once I did run a rather lukewarm review and I can tell you, I felt bad about it. But I figured fair is fair.


But let’s be clear: deciding to kill a review because you think it is unfair is different than simply killing it because you don’t like the opinion it expresses. I may have loved a novel, for example, but if one of my reviewers didn’t and gives good reasons why he or she didn’t, I don’t see my personal opinion as a good reason to kill the review. We are, after all, in the opinion business.


So, what would I have done with the Albom review? I would have run the review with a note, telling the readers the truth: that a lot of people on the staff disagreed with this review. Then I’d ask them what they thought. I’ll bet the newspaper would have gotten a deluge of mail defending Albom. I also might have run another more favorable review alongside the commissioned review, again inviting my readers to weigh in on the debate. I have run a review and then a “second look” on my pages many times, especially when there has been a great deal of controversy over a book. Most recently, I did it with Hillary’s book. In that way, you are providing a review, but also reporting on the controversy the book is stirring.


I think the Detroit Free Press missed a great opportunity to instruct people about what book reviews ultimately are: Just one person’s opinion.


Margo,


Fair enough, but the kind of solution you’re talking about may be a luxury for some newspapers. When space is tight, you have to decide how many column inches can be devoted to just one book, or the paper risks looking as if it’s lost its sense of proportion.


I would argue, as I did successfully when I was book editor at The Oregonian, that a ban on reviewing books by staffers was unfair not only to those who write books that are review-worthy but also to the readers, who, after all, are the people newspapers are trying to serve. A better policy is to give them the same treatment given to reporters at The New York Times, who seem to churn out books at an extraordinary rate. In the daily paper, these books are always farmed out to freelance critics rather than assigned to the regular reviewers. But here’s the caveat: Not all books written by newspaper reporters should be reviewed. Books with commercial, not literary, intent (self-help, for example) should be considered for feature coverage on their own merits. In this case, my opinion is that Albom’s book was worthy of review treatment because, unlike “Tuesdays With Morrie,” it is a novel, his first effort at creative writing.


[ What do you think? When should a paper not review a book or not publish a review? ]

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