The book business

Nicholas Clee on why reviewing your friend's book is always a bad idea

John Irving recently told the Today programme: "I'm not really concerned about book reviewers." Yeah, right. Many authors come up with this line: it is a way of deflecting questions about nasty notices, as well as an assertion of their own superiority, as artists rather than hacks.

Irving certainly paid attention when Marianne Wiggins, in the Washington Post, described his novel Until I Find You as a "mass of lazy, unrefined writing". He contacted the paper, pointing out that he and Wiggins had used to socialise, when she was married to his friend Salman Rushdie. The Post responded by issuing an apology to readers for the "misstep" in running the piece; Wiggins's previous contact with the author, the paper explained, "should have disqualified her as a reviewer". The apology pointed out that contributors to the books pages were asked to sign agreements acknowledging any such association, although it evaded stating clearly whether Wiggins had signed the agreement in this case.

The implication of the Post agreement is that readers of the books pages should be able to read disinterested judgements. If reviewers are friends or foes of the author, their pieces might be tainted by personal considerations. Irving seems to have believed that some animus inspired Wiggins's piece - why otherwise would he have complained? Wiggins and Rushdie went through a hostile divorce; asked about it recently, Rushdie said, "Do not start me on Marianne Wiggins." But suspicion of her on these grounds seems very far-fetched: would anyone seek revenge on an ex-husband by dissing his friend's novel? The review itself does not arouse suspicion, and is mild in tone by comparison with several other attacks on Until I Find You.

Presumably, the Washington Post takes a similarly dim view of unacknowledged friendship - although Irving might not have complained if Rushdie had reviewed Until I Find You. The Atlantic Monthly has no such qualms on this score, having recently run a glowing review, by Salman Rushdie's good chum Christopher Hitchens, of Rushdie's novel Shalimar the Clown.

If the Post agreement were to achieve widespread adoption in the UK, it would paralyse literary London. Here, back-scratching - and, to a lesser extent, point-scoring - are embedded practices.

Maybe we should not be too squeamish. Friends and foes are perfectly capable of coming to impartial judgements about each other's work; Rushdie, for example, concedes that Wiggins is a good writer. Nevertheless, I am inclined to think that the Post's policy is a good one.

I have just turned down the opportunity to review a book by an acquaintance. If I had expressed reservations, he would have interpreted the review as an unfriendly, even hostile, gesture - because the friendly thing to do, if I did not like the book, would have been to avoid the commission. Another personal example: I once met the novelist Joseph O'Connor, who, to my mortification, quoted to me a rather pompous sentence I had once written about him ("He will write better books, I am sure"). Later, I got a commission to review his terrific novel The Salesman; the enthusiasm of my piece was not unrelated to the relief of being able to make up for my previous sniffiness. Both reviews were fair, I still think, but the process was messier than it should have been.

The most influential US fiction critic is Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times. She does not mingle in the literary world. We cannot all be like her; but her example is worth bearing in mind. Her scrupulously disinterested verdict on Until I Find You was, by the way: "lackadaisical and weary".