On declaring a personal interest...
It was the current issue of Private Eye that revealed Sam Baker, who used to edit Red magazine, and who now writes a book column for Harper's Bazaar, had listed The Last Banquet by Jonathan Grimwood as her second favourite holiday read for the summer in her column. Grimwood's publisher, Canongate, duly tweeted some of her praise: "I was obsessed by this sensuous tale of one man's search for the perfect taste."
Great for Grimwood - most debut writers would kill for a mention in such a high profile glossy! (Grimwood isn't a debut author, as he has published many other titles as 'Jonathan Courtenay Grimwood'. I believe, though, this is his first outing as Jonathan Grimwood).
But should Sam Baker have 'fessed up that she was, in fact, Grimwood's wife? Should she have made it clear where her allegiances lay? (Grimwood quotes the review on his website, which also boasts a 'celebrity' section, with photos of famous people reading his book). Private Eye loves this sort of thing, of course - every year it runs a 'log-rolling' page or three, listing the 'books of the year' chosen by friends of authors, authors who are signed up by the same agents or publishers, authors who have been praised and are returning the favour.
I was so conscious of this that I actually asked my editor at one of the newspapers I write for if it would be a problem for me to rate Ruth Padel's volume of Darwin poems - after all, Padel had written a nice review of my book, Between the Sheets. Wouldn't I just be seen as yet another log-roller? My editor scoffed at that and very spiritedly said I should rate books accordingly and not out of fear of the Eye. And surely some of the log-rollers that appear every year do genuinely pick books they love, not necessarily authors they feel they owe favours to?
This issue seemed even more important when I heard Rosemary Goring speak this week at "Weegie Wednesday", a monthly networking night for writers (whose support committee I used to belong to). She was talking about being both a literary editor and the author of a new book, a historical novel called After Flodden. She pointed out that three places in the Scottish media were out of bounds to her, of course - she's literary editor of both The Herald and The Sunday Herald, and as her partner, Alan Taylor, is editor of The Scottish Review of Books, she wouldn't be reviewed there either.
A bit of a contrast with Sam Baker and Jonathan Grimwood then. Was Goring wrong to pass up the chance of a review in her partner's publication? Or was she right to appreciate that there was a conflict of interest? (I should, of course, 'fess up my own connection - I review for Goring in both publications she edits).
As authors, we're often asked to provide puff quotes for fellow writers who are also friends - J. David Simon asked me for one for his latest novel, An Exquisite Sense of What is Beautiful. I said I would read it and consider - I was so impressed with his novel in the end, and with the publisher, that I felt they'd be a good home for my own novel.
Is this the same as a review by a partner? Perhaps Sam Baker really does love her husband's novel - I don't see any reason we should doubt her enthusiasm is genuine. But with so much undeclared publicising of those we know and those we owe favours to, perhaps she felt it perfectly right that she single it out without making clear the personal connection.
Somehow, though, reviews are different from puff quotes on jacket covers. We trust reviews to be impartial in a way that perhaps we don't expect puff quotes to be. It may be part of the reason that J K Rowling wanted to publish under another name, as Robert Galbraith, to see the impartiality of reviews, unaffected by her fame or her fortune.
Perhaps there's little difference between writers being anonymous then, and reviewers keeping quiet about a personal connection they have to a writer they're reviewing, in the sense that both ultimately are performing a kind of con-trick. For some reason though, we tend to find one much more acceptable than the other.