This past week brought up an interesting question from a member of The indiePENdents who had signed up as a reviewer and took exception to one particular title: Do we judge a book by our personal tastes or by its literacy. My response, for obvious reasons omitting mention of the title, follows:
All I can say is that your letter made me read excerpts of not just the title in question but several others under the same name. There are so many of identical titles, one could call it a genre, as they all suck blood (and other things), pierce each other in many ways and pulverize a confusing array of ill-defined enemies or friends, it don’t matter. I now have a better idea what the current movies of this kind are all about, movies that I am told are the delight of teenagers and hits at the box office.
To each his own.
Some of the titles I checked out of curiosity seemed better written than others; I am sure it was my sheer luck I didn’t come across any that wouldn’t pass a literacy test. As you yourself said, the one [you got to review] can be faulted for formatting: I don’t know about that aspect of the book, so what I am left with is that you fault our standards for somehow not aiming at excluding content you and I may not like. The answer is that we can reject a book if it confuses its characters or for a fault in formatting, but not on the basis of personal reading preferences.
But friend, can we arrogate for ourselves the rights to be arbiters of the literary tastes and access of others to them? I remember how, back in 1985, I grossed out a lady lunching with me at a Greek restaurant on 9th Avenue, while they were still serving roasted lamb’s head on a platter, soft cheeks, succulent eyeballs, tongue et all. Age and lack of availability had since made my barbaric yen for innards disappear, but I will not agree with anyone picketing a restaurant offering such fare.
Similar to that was a dilemma we faced at In Touch Networks, a national 24/7 radio reading newsstand for the blind (and otherwise print-handicapped people) over whether or not we should read Playboy on the air. Some donors questioned our broadcasting such disgusting material and Indiana authorities banned it. A blind lady client of ours objected to our reading The Daily News, and thought that we should stick to The New York Times.
My answer was that as long as sighted people have the right to pick up anything they fancy from a newsstand, who are we to deny such right to those among us who are blind. The venerable newspapers and magazines, all of which gave us copyright permission, didn’t object to be in the same program with The National Inquirer sold on the street or read in our scheduled broadcasts.
Similarly, our Seal does not tell people what genre they should read: Our only intention is to distinguish, within each genre, those who don't do damage to the English language.
Our Seal should not be construed as a card of identicality (my coinage) of its recipients. It is a given that they are diverse. Neither do the Seals mean that we recommend the political or any other orientation of the authors or that any of us approve each other’s company; they do attest that the titles carrying them have earned the right to a level playing field in public spaces. The final arbiters are the readers.
...., I hear your concern about the company you keep. But, please, did you take a look at the three awardees so far? They are all different. [The book you got for review] happens to be about vampires, with 13 more in all kinds of genres now in the pipeline. We cannot determine who will submit what work to us in the future. An objective reviewer shouldn’t ask for an assignment to his/her taste. This is not what we evaluate. We are not censors of the public taste. Let the readers buy what they want. We just tell them if the author passes muster as a writer.
I have come to respect your knowledge, judgment and persona. It would pain me to see you separate from our goals on the basis of a misunderstanding. I am sure we can find a joint ground.
Please reconsider. Don't leave. Give me your suggestions as to where you think we might change, improve and clarify.
Most cordially, and reciprocating your affection,