Is Christine Wallace’s review of the new Gillard biography an ‘absolute stink-to-high-heaven conflict of interest’?

In the latest issue of the Monthly, Christine Wallace reviews Jacqueline Kent’s new biography of Julia Gillard.

Wallace has her own Gillard biography coming out next year, a fact she discloses in the Monthly review. This is the usual let-the-readers-decide solution to apparent conflicts of interest.

Kent doesn’t accept that disclosure is enough, and Kent’s publisher doesn’t buy the disclosure defence either:

While [Monthly editor Ben] Naparstek said Wallace had clearly identified herself as the author of a rival biography, Mr Ball [the Penguin publisher] said that was “like a mugger declaring his profession when you first meet”.

“It doesn’t explain away the absolute stink-to-high-heaven conflict of interest in getting one biographer to review another. What kind of intellectual contortion must he have gone through to come up with that?”

While this kind of reaction is to be expected – and perhaps planned as a Monthly publicity stunt – Wallace is an attractive choice from an editor’s perspective. Editors often find that the people most competent to review books from a knowledge-of-subject perspective have something that could be described as an interest: some connection positive or negative with the author, a book on the same or related subject, a known intellectual or ideological position on the issues raised in the book, etc – lots of things that mean that possibly they are not ‘objective’ or ‘impartial’ reviewers.

So there is often a trade-off between expertise and impartiality. In this case, the Monthly could have gone for another political biographer or a political journalist, but neither would have been as competent to discuss Gillard’s life as Wallace.

In this case it seems to be the fact that Wallace has a rival commercial interest that has stirred a strong reaction. Previous biographers writing reviews of subsequent biographies of the same person don’t seem to get much reaction because their commercial interest is seen to be in the past. But they could easily have much stronger motives than money, such as not wanting their critical standing to be eclipsed.

While editors do need to exercise judgment about what impact apparent conflicts of interest will have on a review, avoiding them entirely is very difficult.

6 Responses to “Is Christine Wallace’s review of the new Gillard biography an ‘absolute stink-to-high-heaven conflict of interest’?

  • 1
    Rafe Champion
    October 4th, 2009 08:43

    It is very hard to find impartial or disinterested reviews, most are either a puff from a friend or a hatchet job from an enemy. So in this case it makes sense to give the job to someone who is at least a full bottle on the topic. Discriminating readers can make up their own minds about the degree of bias.
    As Stephen Matchett found when he was reviewing reviewers a few years ago, it is also hard to find reviews that actually tell you about the book, they were mostly vehicles for the reviewers to ventilate their own ideas about the topic. So be warned!

  • 2
    Sinclair Davidson
    October 4th, 2009 09:42

    Andrew – aren’t you just buying into the ‘controversy’? The Monthly editor can get whoever he likes to review books in his own magazine. His has no duty of care to the publishers of biographies, nor a duty to be impartial – a review is much like an op-ed. At worst this is a form of comparative advertising – generally considered to be a good thing.

  • 3
    Andrew Norton
    October 4th, 2009 10:30

    Sinc – I was assuming that book reviews have some kind of consumer advice function, and therefore in-principle it is undesirable if the reviewer lets some personal interest drive his/her judgment.

    But it we take it all as pure opinion – or perhaps taste – anyway, this matters much less. As with opinion writers if we share the biases of the writer we don’t care that he/she is biased.

    I read a lot of book reviews and they do influence my book buying behaviour, while recognising that even without biases judgments on books can vary widely. I ‘correct’ for this by reading multiple reviews of the same book and by drawing on my knowledge of authors and reviewers. But in fields I am not familiar with I’d like to think that editors make some attempt to match books and reviewers in ways that will lead to the book providing useful consumer advice.

  • 4
    Sinclair Davidson
    October 4th, 2009 11:58

    Fair enough. I tend to rely more on word of mouth or author identity when buying books.

  • 5
    Jeremy
    October 4th, 2009 12:08

    “it is also hard to find reviews that actually tell you about the book, they were mostly vehicles for the reviewers to ventilate their own ideas about the topic”

    Although the reviews in publications like the New York Review of Books, and the TLS – where a well-informed author writes beautifully for many columns about the subject, before even beginning to address the book in question, can be wonderful to read.

    Perhaps Christine Wallace might have been able to deflect some criticism had she been able to do the same – use the ‘It’s not just a book review’ defence.

  • 6
    Ken Nielsen
    October 4th, 2009 21:31

    A common issue in book reviews.
    How often have we seen a review concluding with something like
    “The author makes a useful contribution to the understanding of the economic influence of shipbuilding techniques in the 14th century, but the definitive study of that important subject has yet to be published”

    The reviewer is a leading scholar in the history of shipping whose major work on 14th century shipbuilding techniques will be published in April.