On Project Runway this week, judge Michael Kors was asked about what he looks for when evaluating the contestants' designs. He said that each week he tried to judge just what was in front of him, not the designer behind it and not his or her previous work. I call bullshit. All the judges whine about Uli's drapey halter things, and applaud when a designer tries something new--like when Uli won a challenge by designing a dress that didn't go to the floor.
Book reviewers confront this dilemma all the time: how do you fairly evaluate something that seems like something you've seen before? It's a greater burden for children's book reviewers, too, because the target audience for any given book is far less likely to have read any of the books the reviewer is referencing. I got into this many years ago with editor Melanie Kroupa, who was miffed that I wrote of a Ron Koertge novel that it was too much like the one he had published the previous year. If the book succeeded on its own terms--which we agreed it did--was it then fair to fault it for not being different enough from the author's other work?
No and yes. No, because if a book succeeds in its own right, it deserves praise. But yes, it is also fair to criticize an author for not stretching. A book review has responsibilities to the book (to represent it fairly), to the reader (ditto), but also to literature as a whole: the reviewer needs to ask "what does this book add to the books that are already out there?" PR judge Nina Garcia would call this the "editorial judgment."
Next, maybe I'll examine Heidi Klum's ultimate words of praise: "It looks expensive!"