When Book Reviews Go Wrong

PHOTO: Some recent book reviews have inspired more critical ire than the original subject matter.Getty Images
Some recent book reviews have inspired more critical ire than the original subject matter.

Authors have always been somewhat wary of literary critics. But in the age of social media, reviewers can also easily become the subject of ire themselves.

To wit, the Internet's claws came out today to scratch at a bizarre, anonymous book review featured in The Economist.

In a summation of the book "The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism" by Edward Baptist, the reviewer wrote: "Mr. Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy."

The assertion that African-American slaves were not all necessarily victims drew the ire of commenters and media bloggers alike -- and quickly began trending online.

In response, The Economist has since withdrawn the review and issued the following statement: "In our review of 'The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism' by Edward Baptist, we said: 'Mr. Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains.' There has been widespread criticism of this, and rightly so. Slavery was an evil system, in which the great majority of victims were blacks, and the great majority of whites involved in slavery were willing participants and beneficiaries of that evil. We regret having published this and apologise for having done so."

But The Economist isn't the first publication to be taken to task for its literary critiques.

A few months back, a New York Times book review also was called out for misrepresenting a collection of short stories.

In his original review last May 16, David Bezmozgis wrote that the stories in Rivka Galchen's "American Innovations" "are narrated with one exception by variations of a particular sort of woman: in her 30s, living in New York, nominally Jewish."

But the newspaper quickly issued a correction on June 3, acknowledging: "Three stories [in "American Innovations"] have main characters who live in New York City, while the remaining stories are specifically set elsewhere or implicitly in cities other than New York; one story has a Jewish narrator, while all but one of the others have no indications that the central characters are Jewish; five of the stories have central characters who are said to be in their 30s or might reasonably be assumed to be, but the others have main characters who are specifically younger or implied to be younger.”

Such a gaffe begs whether Bezmozgis read the entire text. But what happens when multiple reviews get the same facts wrong about the same novel?

In 2007, several reputable publications were rounded up for misstating a plot point in Alice Sebold's novel "The Almost Moon."

Reviewers at The New Yorker, The New York Daily News, New York magazine, The New York Times, and others all essentially stated that Helen, "the novel’s narrator, puts her mom's corpse in a meat freezer when, in fact, she only thinks about putting her mom’s corpse in a meat freezer," admitted Sam Anderson in his subsequent mea culpa about the mass misunderstanding.

Such a widespread mistake is unusual, but it does make one wonder: How much trust should one place in the critic? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.

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