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The Ethics of Evaluation

The Sydney Review of Books is presenting a practical workshop on ethical criticism at the Museum of Contemporary Art on 31 May as part of Vivid Ideas. Emmett Stinson will be elaborating on the ideas presented in this essay at the workshop. He’ll be joined by Michelle Cahill, Ben Etherington, author of the SRB Critic Watch essays, and SRB editor Catriona Menzies-Pike. Tickets and more information here.

Book reviews can have a variety of functions: they might summarise part (but usually not all) of a book’s content, analyse this same content through political or ideological lenses, perform close textual readings, highlight recurrent themes and symbolism, situate a work within an author’s oeuvre, or provide essential historical, cultural, or social contexts. These, of course, are all important tasks that can enrich and broaden the reader’s understanding of a book; in this sense, book reviewing and academic literary criticism share many goals, even if their audiences and methods frequently differ.

But book reviewing is also a very specific form of literary criticism, and its uniqueness arises from its explicit relation to the book industry. Book reviews usually examine newly available (or reissued) books, and their express purpose is to provide an informed perspective on the book that answers a potential consumer’s most basic question: is this book worth reading? A book review—while it can be many things—is not really a review unless it offers some form of explicit or implicit evaluation in a way that meaningfully answers this question.

As I have argued elsewhere, book reviews therefore constitute ‘a hybrid genre, combining literary criticism, advertising and news reporting (since the publication of a book is a newsworthy “event”).’ Evaluation binds together notions of aesthetic values (is this book good?) with notions of economic value (is this book worth buying?). Usually, aesthetic and economic regimes of value are seen to be incompatible and even contradictory. The French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, for example, analysed the ‘literary field’ by noting an inherent division between two ‘poles’ of writing: ‘popular’ authors, who have access to readers and more economic capital or money, and ‘literary’ authors who have high stores of ‘symbolic capital’ or prestige, but fewer readers and less money.

For more than forty years, scholars influenced by postmodernism have argued that the boundaries of high and low culture have collapsed—a position that, it must be noted, can overlook critiques of an often exploitative and populist culture industry. But antipathies between genre and literary fiction remain significant today, even as a whole slew of contemporary writers continues to explore the territory between these boundaries. While Australia has a variety of book reviewers with investments in both literary and genre fiction (such as Lucy Sussex and James Bradley, among many others), most book reviewing probably reflects expectations that are somewhere between the literary highbrow and what Beth Driscoll has described as the literary middlebrow.

In this sense, most reviewers’ evaluations probably already reflect a particular viewpoint, if not an outright set of literary biases, in valorising subtlety and implication, rhetorical complexity, multifaceted characterisation, and a nuanced engagement with social or historical issues. These positions often do not adequately appreciate genre works that intentionally privilege or deploy archetypal (or ‘flat) characters, openly engage with big themes and social issues, prioritise complex plotting over linguistic invention, and, in the case of genres like speculative fiction, overtly foreground conceptual and political content, often in polemical ways. Ironically, as Ivor Indyk has argued, these same biases also frequently disadvantage experimental works that are formally or linguistically innovative. In this sense, the old antipathy between high and low culture might be better understood as a tripartite struggle between popular, middlebrow, and highbrow literary practices.

Despite the central role of evaluation in book reviewing, many of Australia’s most prominent reviewers nonetheless avoid obvious or explicit evaluative language in their reviews. Two previous winners of the Pascall Prize, Australia’s only award for cultural criticism, have expressed significant qualms about evaluating books in explicit terms. Kerryn Goldsworthy, for example, has noted that ‘I try to avoid direct expressions of evaluation—except in extreme cases, I don’t think the worth of a book can be confidently quantified—and, as a result, can sometimes find that I haven’t made my judgement as clearly as readers might have liked.’ James Ley similarly has stated, ‘Whenever I write a sentence that sounds like the kind of thing that gets plastered across a book cover, I cross it out.’

But this does not mean that either shirks the reviewer’s responsibility to evaluate; instead, Goldsworthy’s and Ley’s evaluations of works tend to be implicit rather than direct, requiring the reader to interpret the review much in the same way that the critic interprets the work. There is an interesting mirroring of form and content here, since Ley and Goldsworthy’s approaches to evaluation partake of the same kinds of aesthetic techniques (indirectness, subtlety, careful deployment of rhetoric) that are often associated with contemporary literary prose. In this sense their refusal of direct evaluation also constitutes an assertion of the literariness of book reviewing as a genre. In the terms of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, the denial of overt evaluation would constitute an assertion of the autonomy of the literary sub-field of book reviewing as having an intrinsic value over and above other popular modes of consumer recommendation, which do not possess literary qualities (such as bestseller lists, Goodreads ratings and Amazon review

Academic critics similarly avoid overt evaluations. Academic criticism is logocentric by nature, and seeks to emphasise reason, logic, and evidence, instead of making polemical arguments or impassioned evaluations. Julieanne Lamond—a literary academic at ANU and reviewer for the Sydney Review of Books—has noted that writing reviews ‘force[s] me to do something that we as scholars are very wary of doing in public: deciding how good we think a particular work of literature is. These days, and for good reasons, the last thing most literary studies scholars want to do is to be (or be seen to be) gatekeepers of cultural hierarchy.’ In another essay, Lamond has explained this nervousness about literary value in greater detail, stating that ‘I carry the inherent suspicion of canonicity of my generation of scholars and feminists’; her point is that literary evaluations are covert means of gendered exclusion, which privilege both masculine notions of literature and male authors, while denigrating as insignificant other modes of writing traditionally produced and consumed by women. This is an essential point, and as the Stella Count bears out, contemporary reviewing practices disproportionately benefit male authors and reviewers.

But despite this legitimate nervousness about evaluation, academic criticism still implicitly judges the quality of works in various ways. For one, it does this through the way it attends to some texts and authors, while ignoring others; here, the simple fact of attention suggests worthiness. Moreover, despite many attempts to diversify the canon, it is still canonical texts that attract the most scholarship and are most frequently discussed in high-prestige literary journals. Moreover, as Mark Davis noted in a keynote speech at the Independent Publishing Conference in 2014, postmodern critics have generated their own de facto canons of contemporary literature; Davis—when prompted to name such a work—pointed to Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1986) as an example. Through the eight years of my high school and undergraduate degree in the Unites States during the 1990s, I was assigned Beloved—an excellent novel, which bears rereading, to be sure—in six different subjects. I sometimes wonder if the avoidance of evaluation, which seems to be progressive, actually creates a more pernicious problem than the existence of explicit canonicity. At least canonicity allows the creation of rival or counter-canons, whereas the ambiguous nature of postmodernism’s implicit canons (which reflect implicit evaluations) makes them less available for critique and debate.

As I hope these examples make clear, evaluation thus constitutes book reviewing’s central feature and a source of constant anxiety. Evaluation is both book reviewing’s raison d’être and the site of contradictions between notions of value (aesthetic and economic) that are theoretically irreconcilable. Though evaluation is what most readers seek in a book review, many of our best critics consciously withhold explicit judgments of this kind. Academic literary criticism avoids evaluation both to escape its more pernicious (i.e. discriminatory) tendencies and to distance itself from popular forms in order to justify its own professional hierarchies. In this sense, the role of evaluation in book reviews is far more complicated than it might seem.

Literary evaluation has obviously ethical dimensions. Some of the most obvious are the ways in which allegedly ‘literary’ judgments simply reflect and reinforce forms of cultural exclusion. The annual Stella Count presents an irrefutable record of the way that contemporary book reviewing disadvantages female authors and reviewers. Other modes of cultural and racial exclusion from circuits of literary recognition have been discussed by Maxine Beneba Clarke and Michelle Cahill. Shannon Burns has recently examined the ways in which class both conditions literary responses and remains an invisible marker that is not always captured by contemporary notions of ‘privilege’.

Evaluation also has potentially ethical dimensions in relation to authors, and, as anyone who has ever been the subject of a negative book review can attest, receiving a negative review is not among life’s greatest pleasures. But a bad review also shouldn’t be that big of a deal: authors—in publishing a work—are submitting themselves to public scrutiny, which includes the possibility of negative responses and even, yes, ridicule. Aside from attempting, in good faith, to understand a book within the frame of the author’s intention and not wilfully misrepresenting the book under review, reviewers have few obligations to authors and cannot take responsibility for how they might feel about a critical review.

There are other broader ethical obligations surrounding authors. For one, I think it is essential that reviewers make sure they approach books written by well-known authors with the same critical eye that they apply to first-time or lesser-known authors. In a recent analysis, I examined two years’ worth of reviews in Australian Book Review, which demonstrated that their reviews are overwhelmingly positive, but that books by first-time or lesser known authors were much more likely to attract a negative review. While this might be a reflection of the fact that well-known authors produce better books, I suspect it is simply that reviewers are more hesitant to criticise works by prestigious authors. I don’t think this is a conspiracy, but rather a mix of pragmatism (i.e. a fear of how well-known authors might respond in a small literary scene) and a lack of bravery: many reviewers, when having a negative reaction to a book by a well-known author, might be more likely to ascribe this reaction to ‘reader error’ rather than following through on the courage of their convictions. I think this lack of courage can be viewed as a form of ethical failure.

Indeed, many of the most important ethical questions for reviewers are individual, and require that reviewers carefully analyse their own biases. One of the most simple forms of this is to make sure that reviewers are capable of being objective about the book under review; increasingly, I am seeing authors name and thank reviewers over social media, which is a bad practice that immediately calls into question the legitimacy of the review, and should be avoided at all costs. More importantly, however, authors need to know their own biases and preferences. This is not because a critic should have no biases; as James Ley has argued, strong viewpoints are essential for a critic’s development. Rather, critics need to be aware of their own biases to make sure they are legitimately approaching a book within the terms that it sets, rather than using a book to make another point that relates only tenuously to the work in question.

Finally, I think criticism has another ethical obligation that is linked to a particular regime of contemporary valuation—and this reflects the fact that ethics—rather than being the categorical imperatives imagined by Kant—are absolutely conditioned both by ideological differences and local contexts. Aesthetics judgments are increasingly mediated by various external forms that are wholly arbitrary: by this I mean literary prizes, year end and ‘top ten’ lists, and various forms of metric aggregation of reviews (as embodied by social reading sites like Goodreads and Amazon customer reviews, which give books an aggregated ‘score’). These practices are reflective of a neoliberal, information society that wants to reduce all forms of value to metrics and data, even when such forms are clearly absurd. All of these forms of assessment are what I would call ‘pseudo-aesthetic’ judgments; although they appear to evaluate works as winners, list entries, or by a score, these evaluations are essentially meaningless insofar as they fail to offer any information about either the book or the subjective perspective of the reviewer who is assessing the work. In this sense, I would argue that book reviewers’ have an ethical objection to resist such easy pseudo-aesthetic forms of judgment by means of careful consideration, which foregrounds (even if implicitly) their own point of view. I think, for example, the reticence to evaluate mentioned by both Goldsworthy and Ley stems from a desire to offer complicated and contextual assessments that resist metricized forms of judgment that appear absolute in their nature. Part of the value of book reviews—and it is a value with ethical implications—lies in the subjective nature of the reviewer’s assessment; a book review is just one perspective on the book in question, but the book reviewer’s ambitious claim is that this one perspective matters.