Intriguing post by Roger Sutton arguing that a publication shouldn’t run two reviews of the same book:
I was most intrigued to find out from George Woods’s piece that he once ran dueling reviews on the same page of the New York Times Book Review. […] Woods explained this gambit in his essay “Reviewing Books for Children”:
There is no objective yardstick that one can place against a book and say, “The good stick says this does not measure up.” Good or bad, success or failure is measured largely in the reviewer’s responses and mind. I think of John Donovan’s Wild in the World, which was reviewed intentionally in The Times by two eminent critics in two separate reviews running on the same page on the same Sunday. One said it was the worst book ever written for young people; the other said it was the finest book ever written for young people. Who was right? Who was wrong?
While granting Woods’s point about informed subjectivity, I would in fact turn the question over to him: was it right or wrong for the Times to refuse to take an editorial stance on a book? It’s true that the Times’s daily book critics are often at odds with the Sunday reviews, but that’s a long-standing distinction, and no one thinks of Maslin’s or Kakutani’s weekday reviews as being “what the Times thinks” the way the Sunday reviews stand alone, apart from their reviewers. If anything, Woods’s experiment demonstrates the need for dueling publications, and an audience that knows it can’t find everything in one place.
We regularly battle within the office about which books are going to get reviewed and how. But one side always wins, if with a victory tempered and informed by the debate. We work out the stars, and the annual Fanfare list the same way. Certainly, a book that doesn’t do a thing for me can still get starred, because its proponents had the better argument than my “if I have to read one more intricately chess-game-like fantasy novel I’m going to scream” point of view. I’m less concerned with readers knowing what I think than I am with them having a grip on “what the Horn Book thinks.” I definitely don’t want them to feel like we couldn’t make up our mind.
I am inclined to be more sympathetic to Woods than Sutton, largely because I can’t imagine seriously referring to a given publication’s opinion of a book, rather than a reviewer’s opinion. I might colloquially say “Locus liked it”, but what I would mean, if I were to stop and be more careful about my phrasing, is probably “Gary Wolfe liked it”. In fact, Locus fairly often does run more than one review of a book — not in direct opposition, as Woods apparently did in the NYTBR, but just in the nature of things, in Rich Horton and Nick Gevers’ short fiction reviews, and across the various book columns. Maybe there’s an element of ego in wanting publications to acknowledge their reviewers as individuals, but I do also think it makes the magazine more interesting and useful, not less.
There’s probably something about The Horn Book‘s editorial process that I’m not quite getting, but taken at face value I feel uncomfortable about Sutton’s remark that they battle internally about not just which books are going to get reviewed, but how they are going to get reviewed. Perhaps it’s just that it makes the Horn‘s reviews sound awfully tame: what I want to read are those passionate backstage arguments, not a moderated consensus view.