the complete review Quarterly
Volume I, Issue 2   --   May, 2000

On Critical Anonymity

A Literary Saloon Dialogue

The Scene:

       Spring has been bright but cold. The Literary Saloon remains a favoured destination to warm oneself -- by the fire or, more popularly, by the bar.
       It is early evening, a weekday. The room isn't packed. Some authors and some readers have dropped in after work, huddling together over their first drinks. A sits at the bar, checking how the market did, wavering over whether or not to buy a put option on a faddish technology stock. B sits two stools down, reading a literary magazine.

       C, the noted author, enters, shaking off the cold. He seems in a foul mood and doesn't mind letting everyone know it. A few eyebrows are raised -- as they always are when C enters a room -- but everyone continues about their business (consisting mainly of drinking and talking). Seeing A with the laptop C walks over to him and looks over his shoulder at the screen.

The Dialogue:

C:    Nifty machines.
A:    (Grunts of vague agreement.)
C:    Doing that 'Net thing ?
A:    Yes, sir.
C:    So much information, all at you fingertips.
A:    So they say.
C:    There at the press of a button.
A:    Indeed.
C:    About any and everything.
A:    A large number of things, in any case.
C:    Too many, possibly.
A:    I find it a convenience.
C:    Yes, I found it convenient, too. The new book came out, you know. Reviews everywhere, of course. Even some publicity at my publishers' site -- though they don't seem to understand much of how to utilize this medium.
A:    Par for the course, for publishers, no ?
C:    True. But looking about I found, among the many official reviews -- the various Times, the Posts, the Mails -- and a few fans' comments, a review at a site ... what was it called -- oh yes, the complete review.
A:    Yes, I've heard of them.
C:    "Complete" -- my foot ! "Review" -- my ... other foot !
A:    I quite like the site. They summarize reviews, give you the quotes from the reviews that don't make the backcover of the paperback edition. And provide their own reviews.
C:    Their own reviews !
A:    As I recall, they do suggest that authors should avoid reading reviews of their own works.
C:    Very helpful advice. No, I always want to know what scurrilous misrepresentations of my work are being spread to the reading masses.
A:    To call them masses seems to me to be expecting a bit much in the way of an audience ..... So this complete review, they panned your book ?
C:    They were less than generous in their evaluation.
A:    Let's see what they wrote ... here we have it. B minus. A not very flattering assessment. But the other reviews are largely no more favourable. Here, we can link to the review at ...
C:    No, no, that won't be necessary.
A:    The complete review seems of a similar mind to most of the other reviews. You may not like it, but why single them out ?
C:    The review is unsigned.
A:    No reviewer's name ? I always took these things to be "by the complete review", not by any particular individual. What do you need a name for ? Were you planning on challenging the critic to a duel ?
C:    Hiding behind this veil of anonymity, it's intolerable.
A:    I had never really thought there was much hiding there.
C:    They should at least have the nerve to sign their attacks.
A:    They don't sign their complimentary reviews either, I believe.
C:    I find it troubling.
A:    And why, exactly ?
C:    I want to know the names of those involved.
A:    You don't think it confuses the issue ? Puts personality into play where personality doesn't belong ?
C:    But personality is always there, so why not be upfront about it ?
A:    I think the complete review is somewhat different from most review fora in that the criticism itself tends to be relatively simple and summary. The value of the site is in the added information -- links to other reviews, other information, titbits about the publisher, the translation, the author. I am not that bothered by the relative anonymity of the place.
C:    All reviews should be signed.
A:    Historically criticism was often anonymous.
C:    And often critics took advantage of this situation to launch devastating personal attacks.
A:    That, I'll grant, is unacceptable. But even in recent times there are examples of reliable review-fora that did not reveal who reviewed what. The Times Literary Supplement presented its reviews anonymously for the longest time. The Economist still does.
C:    I disapprove.
A:    And I would even suggest that there is much to be said for anonymity. The cult of personality about the author is bad enough, but reviewing breeds the same condition. The New York Times Book Review outdoes itself weekly with famous names considering the books under review. There's something to be said for it, and a lot against. In each instance the personalities are at issue -- critic versus author. If the reviewers remained nameless there might be less such pressure -- and less need to look for so-called notable names and instead find competent reviewers.
C:    But its fun to read what the famous have to say about each others' books.
A:    Those fora that rely on professional reviewers -- a steady stable, providing reviews week in and week out -- are a bit better off. But The New York Times, for example, has a number of reviewers for its daily edition, and each has different preferences, criteria, and interests. The Kakutani looks at books differently than the Bernstein or the Lehmann-Haupt.
C:    I thought they'd shipped Haupt's head off to Obits ...
A:    The point remains: different critics, different opinions. The complete review seems to aspire to a uniform point of view in its reviews. Its likes and dislikes and pet peeves are meant to be consistent, regardless of what the book in question is. To add a name would only confuse things. In fact, I really don't think any single individual does the reviews -- they are too close in tone and approach to one another.
C:    You're suggesting it is like a television show, where it is pointless to speak of an individual writer because almost all the scripts are pieced together by a room full of hacks.
A:    Exactly.
C:    I'll agree that the complete review might have its own room full of hacks.
A:    I think it is pleasantly, almost boringly predictable. You know what you're getting there. Can't say the same for most other review sites, big or small.
C:    It still strikes me as sneaky and underhanded.
A:    But doesn't it focus attention entirely on the book and the review, rather than considering the personal motivations behind the review ?
C:    But I can't believe there aren't personal motivations.
A:    And the name would reveal what these are ?
C:    It would seem more honest to me.
A:    But perhaps that is also the point. Appearances can easily be deceiving. To put a name there lulls into a false sense of security. You think you know where the reviewer is coming from, because you recognize the name -- from other reviews, or other works, or because some sort of reputation has been ascribed to it. But you can never know the many motives in men's and women's heads. A name alone won't reveal them.
C:    It helps in some instances.
A:    You believe it helps. You believe you have some insight into a reviewer's motives from the limited knowledge you have of them and their relationship with the author and work under review. I assure you: your insight is limited, to, at best, a single level. The true complexity of motives behind opinion -- they defy easy analysis.
C:    Better than nothing, I say.
A:    And I think the complete review forces the issue to the fore. They always say that one should never trust any reviews, even their own, that one should always consider the motives and reasons behind any opinion, good or bad. By not admitting personal liability, by remaining hidden in anonymity, they force you to doubt the review from the beginning. And you should always doubt every review, every expression of opinion.
C:    It wouldn't work if all reviews were presented anonymously, everywhere.
A:    I did not suggest it would. It requires a strong editorial hand to present anonymous reviews -- a rarity, though perhaps still more prevalent in magazine and newspaper publishing than in the book industry. And the imprint of an editor or editorial board might, in the end, be as oppressive and tainted as that of a reviewer. Nevertheless, I like the removal of the cult of personality at any level.
C:    Next you'll be calling for books to be published anonymously .....
A:    Oh, I've always been convinced of the necessity of that !

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© 2000 the complete review