By Janice Harayda
In October the sponsor of the National Book Awards did a favor for Oregon Public Broadcasting, an independently run member of NPR. The National Book Foundation allowed OPB to carry the live announcement of the 2011 finalists — and benefit from any related boost in ratings or traffic to its site — instead of a for-profit station.
So you might wonder why the New York Times Book Review assigned a review of the fiction winner, Salvage the Bones, to Parul Sehgal, the books editor of NPR.org. Wouldn’t that create the appearance of a conflict of interest by giving an NPR employee the opportunity to return a favor the National Book Foundation did for an NPR member? If so, shouldn’t the NYTBR have disclosed the link between the awards program and NPR?
You might think so. And there’s more. Before the awards ceremony, Sehgal praised Salvage the Bones on the NPR site. She called Jesmyn Ward’s tale of Hurricane Katrina one of five “splendid books” shortlisted for the fiction prize, admiring its “pitch-perfect collisions of character and fate that endow it with the scope and impact of classical tragedy.” After the novel won, she reaffirmed her high opinion of it on The Millions, where she wrote: “Salvage the Bones is every bit as good as they say it is.” So it’s no surprise that in the Jan. 1 New York Times Book Review, Sehgal again celebrates the book: “Salvage the Bones … is a taut, wily novel, smartly plotted and voluptuously written.” After all, she’s told us twice before that she likes it.
What is a surprise is that the NYTBR assigned the review not just to a critic employed by NPR but to one who had made her views on the novel well known. Did the editors believe that no other critic could review the book as well? Sehgal is the most recent winner of the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing and was certainly well qualified to review the novel. But so were many other critics, including a half dozen or more recipients of the same honor. Was the Times trying to stack the deck in favor of a good review?
Newspapers often reprint reviews that have appeared in other papers or on wire services such as the AP, just as many bloggers self-syndicate by allowing their reviews to appear on multiple sites. These practices are widely accepted in part because they typically involve no effort to rig the jury. An editor of a paper or site simply reprints what exists. It’s also common for critics to review new books by authors whose earlier work they have praised, and more than 3 in 4 critics see nothing wrong with the practice, according an NBCC ethics survey.
But it’s highly unusual for a major newspaper to permit a critic to review a new book that he or she has lavishly praised for a substantial national audience, and it may be unprecedented at the New York Times Book Review. In the case of Salvage the Bones, the results are confusing: Sehgal seems to imply on the NPR site that the book is “pitch-perfect.” But she says of its author in her Times review: “She never uses one metaphor when she can use three, and too many sentences grow waterlogged and buckle.” None of this is intended to slight Sehgal – whose ethics and professionalism are, to my knowledge, unquestioned – but it creates the suspicion that the Times hoped to ensure a favorable review choosing her.
All of this raises questions of fairness – to readers, to authors, and to publishers. Everyone benefits when books receive as many reviews as possible from open-minded critics, because each reviewer offers a unique perspective. The situation might be different if the posts that Sehgal wrote before her Times review had been straight news stories that contained no opinion and consisited of, say, an announcement of its shortlisting and plot summary. But words like “splendid,” “pitch-perfect” and “as good as they say” involve value judgments, not facts, and the NPR description of the novel is indistinguishable from a brief review even if not labeled as such.
It’s hard to believe that the Times would have allowed Sehgal to review Salvage the Bones if she had criticized the book as strongly as she praised it on the NPR and the Millions sites. Readers would have complained that the paper showed an unfair bias in assigning a review of the novel to a critic known to dislike the book. Why wasn’t it equally unfair of the Times to assign a review to a critic known to like it?
Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.