In collaboration with U of T, The New York Times (NYT) hosted a panel about the art of the book review, focusing on the overall ethics and guidelines of book reviewing, as well as what makes a ‘good review.’
The event took place on November 30 at Isabel Bader Theatre and featured Jennifer Szalai, the NYT’s nonfiction book critic, and Randy Boyagoda, a U of T English professor and principal at St. Michael’s College.
Describing her experience as a book reviewer and the differences to those of news reporters, Szalai said, “There’s news value in these books and so when I review books, news value’s part of it, but it’s about reviewing the book, it’s about criticism. It’s about thinking what it is that the writer is trying to do.”
Szalai also spoke of the inner workings of being a reviewer, touching on subjects such as an embargo book, which “is a book that the publisher has decided not to release any advance copies of to reviewers.”
She also described how major book publicists and publishers try to get critics and editors to sign non-disclosure agreements, which is against NYT staff guidelines. Critics at the NYT are also not allowed to review books from current and former work colleagues.
The panelists also discussed how readership affects the process of book reviewing and how book culture remains an integral part of the industry. Boyagoda drew on his experience as an English professor, emphasizing the importance of book reviewing in contemporary literary studies.
“It is important for contemporary students of literature, of ideas more generally, to have a sense of what they’re studying in class is meaningfully connected to what’s going on in the world at large,” he said. “There’s a continuity between what’s going on in terms of a syllabus and then the kind of culture at large. And if we don’t see that… then all that matters are those that are dead already and I think a lively book culture kind of fails, and the people who are studying it today aren’t committed to thinking about what’s going on in terms of contemporary fiction and nonfiction.”
Szalai said that bias, particularly from readers, makes it difficult when giving a fair opinion. Social media makes it especially hard, as reviewers can face direct criticism for an honest review.
“I think that the main thing about the reviews, especially the reviews that run in the Times, is that you want the review to be fair,” she explained.
She acknowledged that people define ‘fair’ in different ways, “but ultimately, you don’t want the reader to think that there’s some sort of ulterior motive on the part of the reviewer, whether it’s to promote a friend on the one hand, or if it’s an enemy, to really take their book down,” she said.
During the Q&A session, one audience member asked a question about the genre bias of book reviews, mainly those of history and politics, and what would constitute any non-political book to be reviewed.
“I think it would depend on the book,” said Szalai.
“Sometimes I will notice that I’ve just done week after week after week of books having to do with history, politics, social issues, and for myself as well as for the readers, I think it’s nice. It’s helpful also for them to understand my sensibility better if I speak to a book that’s not about that.”
Boyagoda related the question to his experience reviewing a book outside his expertise of literary fiction.
“It was a great intellectual palate cleanser from, in my case, literary fiction… and I had readers… who came up to me and said, ‘It was really interesting to see you writing about this instead.’”
“That makes it a break for the reader, but it’s also a break for the critic; it’s kind of like a reset, in a way… whether it’s politics or literary fiction,” said Boyagoda.
Sam Tanenhaus, a former editor at the NYT and a visiting professor at U of T, moderated the panel. The NYT’s Canada bureau chief Catherine Porter and University College Principal Donald Ainslie delivered opening and closing remarks.