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What is Being an Expert and What is Protecting Your Turf?

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Back in early August, I ran a bit about some controversy surrounding the Washington Post book review of John Irving’s most recent novel, Until I Find You. The uproar at the time was that the newspaper ran a book review written by a critic who had a personal relationship with Irving. The newspaper acted to clarify its requirements for book reviewers to disclose any “any contact, friendly or otherwise, with the author” of the book being critiqued.

That’s all fine and good. But a review yesterday makes me wonder where the line is between being an expert on a topic and protecting your own turf. In yesterday’s Washington Post author John Burdett reviewed Nick McDonnell’s new book. McDonnell achieved celebrity status when he wrote Twelve at the age of 17. His newest work is entitled The Third Brother and reviewer Burdett seems to be far from impressed. The review states that McDonnell has “has flown to Bangkok, a city he does not know or understand” where he creates an “incomprehensible landscape without a backup plan as various moronic, dope-driven backpackers come and go without explanation.” Midway through the book, the plot shifts dramatically but “the metamorphosis is not enough to save the novel. The plot is no more than a desperate attempt to weld together two very different books.”

Reviewer Burdett is the author of the novels Bangkok 8 and Bangkok Tattoo and lives in Hong Kong. His novels deal with drugs, sex, and the underbelly of life in the Far East. So does this make him an expert who has a learned opinion on the culture and therefore a qualified reviewer of McDonnell’s work? Or does this make him an author who has staked out a literary geography that he wants to protect by criticizing another novel?

I have no reason to question Burdett’s integrity or motives. None at all. So I’m sure that he is providing an expert opinion based on knowledge that you or I couldn’t know about that part of the world. I’m not criticizing this particular instance as much as I’m using it as a launching pad to a larger conceptual discussion. How do editors select book reviewers? What is considered a qualification that makes an expert reviewer? How do editors keep reviewers from ripping other writers in an attempt to protect the special quality of their own books? I don’t know the answers to these questions.

Any thoughts or comments?