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June 30, 2005

Who Was That Masked Man?

by Ron Hogan

Remember the guy who called PW's anonymous reviewers Stakhanovites a few months back? Former Beatrice contributor Quinn Dalton isn't quite that vehement in her assault on unsigned criticism for MediaBistro, because she doesn't have a political ax to grind. What bothered her the most about the anonymous pan she got from Kirkus? "To not be able to place the review in any kind of context in connection to the reviewer was both frustrating to me and a disservice to the people who use these reviews to make buying decisions for their customers."

With all due sympathy for the first problem, one I'll no doubt have to address myself in a few months, I believe the second problem is overstated. Even if you don't know the name of the individual who reviewed a certain book for PW--where, as I'll disclose in case you don't recall, I review an average of 1-2 books weekly--the magazine itself has an institutional integrity and accountability I believe to be sufficient. I suppose it sounds a bit high-hat to say you should trust the unnamed reviewers because the PW editors do, but at a certain point you have to assume the people in charge of assigning these reviews know what they're doing and can figure out when personal bias prevents a writer from looking at a book fairly. (That said, when Quinn's anonymous source says she "had almost no understanding of what PW was all about and certainly not even an inkling of the kind of weight a PW review can carry," it does make you wonder for a moment how she managed to keep landing assignments--and one freelancer's ignorance about her client is hardly a reason to damn an entire business practice.)

I can't speak for any other reviewer, but I don't place particular value on the anonymity of my PW reviews. I write exactly what I say not because invisibility gives me that freedom but because if you don't write with intellectual integrity, you shouldn't bother writing. (That's why I don't review fiction; the handful of attempts I made at Amazon satisfied me that I'm not cut out for it, at least not in the 200-words-or-less format.) It may be excessive modesty on my part, but I think that in the context of a PW review, the added value to the consumer or bookbuyer of knowing that "Ron Hogan" reviewed this or that book is minimal at best. I look at it in terms of the PW brand, which you either trust or you don't. That said, if they wanted to add our names, that would be fine with me, too. I just don't see a pressing need for it.

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