I recently watched on C-SPAN the "Ethics in Book Reviewing" panel discussion from the recent Book Expo America. Quite frankly, most of it was pablum (except for John Leonard's remarks and some of David Ulin's), when it wasn't largely just self-serving. The discussion really wasn't so much about "ethics" as it was about insuring that most of the assumptions motivating mainstream book reviewing remain resolutely unexamined. The general impression I got from the panelists was that what reviewers and editors are doing these days is just fine, except in the rare instances when it's not, but those don't really matter since print book reviewers are clearly so well-intentioned.
One of the unexamined assumptions that seems to be shared by these book reviewers is that the reviewer should not look at other reviews before doing his/her own, an issue that came up near the end of the session. "Just review the book" seemed to be the consensus advice among those left to discuss the matter.
There are several problems with this notion that reviews should be written in a critical vacuum, however. One is that it implicitly posits a recognized, shared set of criteria by which reviewers should go about "just" reviewing the book at hand. The reviewer needn't look at what others are saying because everyone is applying these same standards, even though they might come to different conclusions in the process. Ignoring those other reviews presumably avoids contaminating one's own conclusions with theirs, leaving the purity of one's response intact.
There is no such purity of response. If there is a shared set of critical standards that reviewers must apply, that in itself is the product of reviewers' assimilation of those standards through reading other reviews. If there are no critical standards to be uniformly and objectively applied in particular cases, then the reviewer's response is unavoidably intuitive and subjective, and while this sort of encounter with the text might thus be more recognizably "pure," I don't see the point in protecting it from intelligent or provocative things other reviewers might be saying. As a reviewer, you might be overlooking something in your own apprehension of the text, and to be alerted to this by another review can only be helpful. Why let your impoverished reading stand when you can easily enough enrich it?
In my opinion, this hands-off approach to reviewing only reinforces the idea that book reviews are essentially "consumer reports," an attitude to which Francine Prose earlier in the discussion took exception. Each reviewer goes about his/her business of "just" reviewing the book and sends the results out to the reading public. These readers then consult a sampling of such assessments and make a decision about which one to trust, or how each one contributes to an overall assessment that helps the reader choose to purchase or not to purchase the "product" in question. Unless you think the reader is only going to read your review, which is possible but not likely, and certainly not likely among readers of the more intellectually weighty book review publications such as the NYTBR or Bookforum or The Atlantic, to refuse to consider the commentary other serious reviewers and critics have already provided seems to me a refusal to engage in the kind of ongoing critical discourse about new works they most decidedly need if they're not to become like most movies--appear with great fanfare in the form of reviews (mostly offered up over the same weekend) and then, after the equivalent of the obsession with a movie's "grosses," effectively disappear.
Certainly not all reviewers would be able to cite other reviews even if they wanted to. With every new book, some reviewers have to go first. But surely Prose and Leonard and Carlin Romano don't really have these kinds of "notices" in mind. (Although there probably is some pressure among editors to get his/her review out first, itself a destructive impulse that's all about bringing attention to one's own publication rather than considering the literary quality of new books.) They're interested in the kinds of reviews that might also claim the status of criticism, even if of a relatively preliminary sort. I, for one, don't see how serious criticism can occur without the critic taking some account of what other critics have said. Moreover, to maintain that reviewers ought to actively avoid engaging with other analyses, should consider book reviewing as the opportunity to "just do it," seems to me an outright repudiation of criticism as anything other than the insulated opinion-mongering of self-appointed "experts."