Was a critical book review "payback time"?
Was it retaliation?
In a review for The New York Times four years ago, best-selling author Buzz Bissinger criticized a new book by noted writer Allen Barra as lacking “any sustained vitality.”
In a review for The Washington Post several weeks ago, Barra described “Shooting Stars,” Bissinger’s new as-told-to memoir with basketball superstar LeBron James, as “an air ball.”
Now Bissinger wonders if Barra’s critical review for The Post amounts to “payback time” for his “clearly negative” earlier Times review of Barra’s book.
Both men are well-established authors who have written extensively about sports. Bissinger’s “Friday Night Lights,” a 1990 book about high school football, topped The New York Times bestseller list and has sold several million copies. Barra, who writes frequently about sports for The Wall Street Journal, has authored a number of sports books. Among them is “The Last Coach,” the book Bissinger reviewed in the Times, about legendary University of Alabama football coach Paul (Bear) Bryant.
After Barra’s review of “Shooting Stars” appeared in The Post on Nov. 1, Bissinger raised the “issue of journalistic ethics” in an e-mail to the newspaper.
I am wondering if Allen Barra, when he was assigned the review of Shooting Stars, disclosed that I had written a critical review of his book on football coach Bear Bryant in the New York Times Book Review several years ago. If he did, then he conducted himself ethically and the editors obviously felt there would be no conflict. That is fine. I have no argument with that.
But, he continued,
If he did not disclose it, then he did not conduct himself ethically. In my experience negative reviews are impossible to ever put aside for an author. It is why I will never review a book by a writer that has written a critical review of one of my books. As much as you try to put your feelings aside, it does present an irresistible opportunity for payback time.
Book reviewers for The Post sign a contract that obligates them to notify editors “If you have had any contact, friendly or otherwise, with the author” of the book they are being asked to write about.
Post Book World Editor Rachel Hartigan Shea said that when Barra was asked to review “Shooting Stars,” he did not reveal that Bissinger had earlier reviewed his book about Bear Bryant. “We assumed, and perhaps we shouldn’t have, that he (Barra) would tell us, because we have a strong working relationship” she said, noting that Barra frequently has reviewed books for The Post.
Last Wednesday, The Post ran a correction that said the review of the book by James and Bissinger "should have disclosed that a book by the reviewer, Allen Barra, had been reviewed by Bissinger in another publication.”
Barra dismisses any suggestion of payback as “much ado about nothing.”
“I’m kind of amazed at all of this,” he e-mailed me. “It just never occurred to me that there was any kind of potential flap here.”
Barra said neither he nor his publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, “regarded Bissinger’s piece as a bad review.” Indeed, he said they quoted from it on the cover of the paperback edition of “The Last Coach.” The blurb said the book is “Admirably ambitious” and that Barra is “one of the country’s most thoughtful writers” on sports.
But a full reading of Bissinger’s 2005 New York Times review shows it was also critical. “What is missing from the book, and it’s a regrettable omission, is any sustained vitality,” it said. The review said a complete description of Bear Bryant’s character “emerges only in little glimpses here and there.” And it said, “Barra has also been done a true disservice in the editing. With the painless paring of a hundred pages, ‘The Last Coach’ would have blossomed with better pace and rhythm.”
Barra told me he recalled seeing Bissinger in mid-2008 at a taping of an HBO show with sportscaster and commentator Bob Costas. Barra said he told Bissinger: “Thanks for the review.” He said Bissinger responded: “Just doing my job.”
Insisting he has no ax to grind, Barra said he had publicly defended Bissinger several years ago when Bissinger, appearing on an earlier show with Costas, had stirred controversy by offering a profanity-laced criticism of the anything-goes sports blogosphere.
“I admire most of Bissinger’s book,” Barra e-mailed, “but let’s face it, he’s been fightin’ and feudin’ with nearly everyone in sports journalism.”
Bissinger insists Barra should have disclosed to Post editors that Bissinger had earlier reviewed "The Last Coach." “I don’t think it was The Post’s responsibility,” Bissinger told me. “I think it’s Mr. Barra’s responsibility.”
He said he would feel the same way even if he had written a positive review of Barra’s book. “It works both ways,” he said, adding that reviewers need to be neutral.
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