The book review sections of America’s newspapers may be steadily shrinking, if the woeful lamentations from various quarters are to be believed, but our nation’s freelance book critics can take comfort in the knowledge that Barnes & Noble will provide them with an ongoing opportunity to cheerlead for quality literature. The Barnes & Noble Review debuted yesterday, chock full of recommendations about “what not to miss this week in books, music, [and] film,” led by former independent bookseller James Mustich, Jr. and veteran B&N website editor Bill Tepper. But it’s also worth noting the presence of various high-class literati like Paul Di Filippo, Brooke Allen, mostly-retired Random House editor Daniel Menaker, and National Book Critics Circle president John Freeman among the newly launched site’s roster of contributors.
Freeman’s B&N debut, reminding readers that Philip Roth is a prominent author, isn’t all that significant in and of itself. But some observers might say it’s worth remembering that in the summer of 2006, Freeman used the Critical Mass blog, which the NBCC has steadily maintained with near-legalistic precision does not reflect the ex officio positions of the various Circle officials who post to it regularly, to argue that bloggers who affiliate themselves with bookstores can’t be trusted to review books honestly, a notion to which I roundly objected at the time. When asked by email Monday afternoon whether his new job generating content infused with links to B&N’s online store could be reconciled with that earlier position, Freeman maintained that what he was doing was entirely different from the practices he had attacked. “It’s quite simple,” he responded. “I am being paid for my opinion—and was reassured they’d run my opinion whatever it was—bloggers who use affiliate programs are paid based on how many books they sell.” If I might be permitted to reframe that position: Taking a bookstore’s money to praise a novel on its corporate website—and let’s face it, given the stated B&N Review editorial mandate to focus on “books, music, and films that we consider worthy of reading, listening to, or watching,” the chances of the site publishing a negative review are marginal at best—is an act of greater intrinsic integrity than creating a link to a bookstore on one’s own website without any editorial oversight from that bookstore or, indeed, any guarantee that said link will generate any revenue to the author whatsoever, and provides more reliable literary criticism by virtue of that integrity.
Don’t get me wrong: As somebody who spent the most profitable two years of his career to date recommending (though not always, not by a long shot) books for Amazon.com customers, I’m hardly suggesting that creating copy for corporate websites is ignoble. All I’m saying is that it’s long past the time for “real” book reviewers to concede not only that they’re not the only experts in the field, but that their opinions are no more or less intrinsically valid than those of people who haven’t convinced various corporate institutions to cut them a check for expressing themselves. (In an ironic illustration of this principle, Freeman has been recruited by competing online retailer Amazon.com to create a sideshow attraction while the site’s customers determine the real winner of its “Breakthrough Novel Award” competition next spring.)