I’m going to join the many, including Matt, who say that these ethical compunctions are so much nonsense.
It seems to me that there are lots of ways of supporting the arts. One is to make a lot of money and become a patron. The ethical problem of that is that it’s hard to make a lot of money and remain ethical. Riches are often ill-gotten in this world. Another is to work in the trenches of editing, publishing, writing, blogging, and even academe and benefit from a barter economy.
One of the great material benefits of having chosen a bookish life is free books. And I don’t mind contests, getting paid, or other baloney either. Good reviewers can’t be bought.
That said, all of us are caught up in the web of who knows whom. In the even smaller world of reviews of academic books, it’s often possible to trace alliances and rivalries within a review. Still, as Ron says rather pointedly:
if you can't tell the difference between somebody who's genuinely passionate about a book and somebody who's repurposing press releases, then frankly you're probably not the most attentive of readers to begin with.
I used to be more worried about these ethical knots until Woolf schooled me to think about writing and reviewing as a profession, not a hobby. For her, it’s a feminist point: we are not mere scribblers and hobbyists and part of taking ourselves seriously as professionals means spending some time thinking about how to make money from this pursuit. In my case, my money mainly comes from my teaching but I am happy to get a little here and there for a guest lecture, an inside review (going back to the editors, that is) of a new text book; I am equally happy to get paid in kind (books) for my writing here at Fernham. We run a tight economic ship here in my family and the free books have become an amazing valve, letting off some of the accumulated pressure from constant budgeting.
Here’s the Woolf wrangle that taught me to get over myself. It’s from a 1925 letter to her friend Jacques Raverat:
I’ve been engaged in a great wrangle with an old American called [Logan] Pearsall Smith on the ethics of writing articles at high rates for fashion papers like Vogue. He says it demeans one. He says one must write only for the Lit. Supplement and the Nation and Robert Bridges and prestige and posterity and to set a high example. I say Bunkum. Ladies’ clothes and aristocrats playing golf don’t affect my style; and they would do his a world of good. Oh these Americans! How they always muddle everything up! What he wants is prestige: what I want, money.