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July 26, 2007

Hosannah in the lowest: An essay on book reviewing

In the future, freshly appointed book editors at our daily newpapers should be handed a copy of Gail Pool's Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America. They could use it: It is a very commonsensical, clear-headed and knowledgeable analysis of the current state of professional book reviewing.

Despite its sub-title, the slim book (170 pages) is not a response to the recent cutbacks in book pages, nor a quarrel with critics' judgments nor a gripe about how dumbed-down everything has become. In fact, Ms. Pool, a former Boston Review editor and book columnnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, begins by citing a number of complaints that have appeared over the decades, all finding the same faults with American reviewers and reviewing. Apparently, the newspaper book page was in a plight the moment it was born.

Instead, Faint Praise aims to explain how book reviewing actually works, the pressures on it and on individual reviewers, the long-term forces that keep reviewing low-paid, disrespected but still needed. Ms. Pool does indeed get around to such recent developments as those book page cutbacks (which have actually been going on for several years but which only generated concerted reactions the past year). She also addresses the rise of book blogs and the harmful effects of Amazon's amateur blurbs, notably the public's confusion of them with reviewing.

There have been reams of personal essays written about reviewing, plenty of journalists reflecting on their careers as book grumps and the occasional table-turning diatribe or "review of reviewers." Even so, on his blog, Quick Study, Scott McLemee recalls that the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism in 2001 included nothing on "practical criticism (as it was once called)." In his review, he asked why, and the response "was as if I'd asked for the return of slavery."

Snobbery is the cockroach of the academy; it'll never die. But journalists themselves have rarely treated the subject at serious length, either. Ms. Pool's ample bibliography of 229 items includes fewer than ten books that can be considered directly about the business. And quite a few of those were published before World War II.

Despite one's impressions, then, that reviewing has been thoroughly and self-importantly hashed over, Faint Praise -- as a book-length study -- is something of a rarity. The last complete volume I can recall reading about the practice (not the theory) of book reviewing was University of Georgia journalism dean John Drewry's Writing Book Reviews. There have been a couple of other books since, but the library copy of Drewry I accidentally came across was from 1966. The book went out of print 10 years later, yet it remains the first item to pop up on an Amazon search for "book reviews."

Still, academic snobbery is right in one regard: There is a distinction to be made between literary criticism and book reviewing.

Ever practical, Ms. Pool borrows Virginia Woolf's distinction: Book reviews concern newly issued books. Literary criticism holds to the long view; it has the luxury of time, and as a result, it does not suffer the pressure of commercial judgment, the desire of readers for straight-faced advice on what books are worth buying. Scholars and academic critics have certainly influenced tastes and thus sales (Malcolm Cowley on Faulkner, Lionel Trilling on Orwell). But a critical essay without an explicit judgment about a book or author need not be considered a failure, whereas a book review would. Judgment is our business (although we peddle other product lines, too -- Literary Analysis, Deep Wisdom, Cheap Laffs). However much reviewers may feel we are not a part of the publishing industry's marketing, however much we must remove ourselves from such concerns when considering a book's value, we are a factor in sales. To our great credit, an unpredictable, unreliable factor.

Ms. Pool spends some time pointing all this out, pointing out how it's impossible to keep the author "out of the room" while the reviewer is working -- as well as the publisher and all of his marketing tools. Reviewers cannot pretend to ignore that the author of a new novel is Philip Roth, for instance. Or that this other book is clearly aimed at an audience for lurid personal memoirs and not primary-sourced histories. Nothing gets reviewed in a vaccuum.

This may seem an obvious point, but it's a point worth making because it's not often heard. It's one of several misconceptions about reviewing that Ms. Pool kicks down: that anyone can do it, for example, or that "objectivity" is always desirable or even expressly sought by periodicals or readers. The "match" between reviewer and book, she believes, is the most important choice an editor makes. If that editor were to winnow out any reviewer who has argued against a book's thesis as well as any reviewer who has championed it, he may be left with no knowledgeable critics at all. Yet aren't reviewers hired, Ms. Pool asks, because they have passionate opinions?

It's in the American tradition to seek "objectivity" in reviewers (meaning "no obvious conflicts of interest") and not in the British tradition, where a smaller pool of writers contributing to far more review outlets encourages political sniping, rousing crossfires and unabashed promotion of one's chums and allies. Witness Christopher Hitchens' merrily unrepentant declaration on a recent BookExpo panel about criticism that he was the best person to write an Atlantic Monthly review of his friend Ian McEwan's new novel, On Chesil Beach and he didn't care who thought otherwise.

The American tradition of objectivity is partly due to the principle of "journalistic balance" developed by The New York Times and other papers, which became the press' calling card to white-collar respectability and professionalism after World War II. In other words, as Ms. Pool notes, it's a journalistic principle, not a literary one. It's also a principle, she doesn't note, that has been buttressed by the post-war tendency toward monopolies in city newspapers. When you're the Big Voice in town, there are pressures from all sides to remain "balanced," although in practice this generally means not accuracy so much as a safe status quo. This monopoly set-up is one reason that I -- and many other readers -- don't mind reviews such as Mr. Hitchens' (and even eagerly seek them out) in a periodical like the Atlantic while in a town's Only Daily, we'd find the same review and Mr. Hitchens' personal ties to his subject a somewhat more irksome issue.

Significantly, "objectivity" in reviews is also an American legal decision that was never laid out in Britain. The James Fenimore Cooper libel cases were a little-known quarrel (Ms. Pool's is the only extensive discussion of them that I've seen -- bravo to her for digging it up) that had the author of The Last of the Mohicans seeking redress against reviews that had stepped beyond literary comment into personal attacks on a property issue. He won, and "fair comment" became an American principle: "The privilege of criticism cannot warrantably be perverted to the purpose of willfully and falsely assailling the moral character of the author."

Fine and noble. But in the end, American editors and reviewers still supposedly seek objectivity -- a kind of above-the-fray neutrality that can suck the life out of a review -- when what we need, Ms. Pool writes, is "fairness": disagreeing with a book but giving the author his due, acknowledging our own biases, not being blinded by them.

Yet it's the blandly positive that prevails. Although Ms. Pool doesn't explicitly mention Heidi Julavits' famous, misguided attack on "snarky" writing, she does make a convincing case that mushy praise is a much more common failing among American reviews, and those journals, like Ms. Julavits' Believer that espouse "positive" reviews out of highmindedness (or squeamishness) are not really doing anyone any favors -- except booksellers and publishers. By default, many newspaper book pages take precisely the same stand -- "no unhappy news" -- for less noble reasons but to much the same cheerleading and book-peddling effect. The editors fear readers won't read many hit jobs. They worry their own bosses will ask, why waste space on worthless books? So then ... why do we report losing baseball games? Why cover failed candidacies?

Magazine reviews aren't much better: I've been told by glossy magazine editors that their business is to provide readers with choices of what to buy. And as for the disappearance of book reviews from men's magazines, I was jokingly informed that they've declined because "knowing about books won't get you laid." Women remain the prime market for most kinds of books, but long gone is Hugh Hefner's air of supposed sophistication, his fantasy of the bachelor "putting a little mood music on the phonograph and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion" about Nietzsche. Considering many young males today -- and their magazines -- this looks like some golden-age ideal of literary discourse.

The prevalence of happy reviews holds true even on the Web, regardless of its reputation for being more honest, more personal, more brutal. If one discounts any site powered by political animosities or calculations, it should be plain that the great mass of blogs out there are motivated by the fan's eager dedication, while many substantial Websites are mostly promo vehicles. Google a favorite author's name and see what you get: The slashing attacks will likely number in the low single digits.

A critic can make a stir, can make himself the center of attention with a savage pen. But it's hard to sustain, hard to make a living at it. Americans, Ms. Pool makes clear, really do not abide much negative thinking. Dale Peck has already said he's quit writing his infamous "hatchet jobs," although they were Hallmark Valentines compared to what made Edgar Allan Poe the best known literary critic of his age. He warmed up by calling Longfellow a plagiarist and got ugly and personal from there. But Poe never could get the funding for his own literary journal off the ground -- and his was America's first great age of literary journals. Most publishers, especially in the tight-knit, commercially incestuous world of New York periodicals, will not pay writers to piss off influential people (Ms. Pool provides examples of the eager and unethical backscratching among our writer-reviewers -- what Spy magazine used to label "Logrolling in Our Time").

In all of this, Faint Praise, which is published by University of Missouri Press, is not a feat of style or wit or vehement anger. Ms. Pool is not going to make us forget the pithy, cutting observations that such writers as Poe or Cyril Connolly have made about the field. But her book is thoughtful and timely and sensible -- so sensible that I feel I can raise two serious weaknesses in Ms. Pool's arguments without unduly damaging the book's value.

First, Ms. Pool believes that publishers are at considerable fault (although hardly solely at fault) for the current straits many newspaper book pages and literary journals are in because of the industry's unwillingness to provide advertising support. The industry gives lip service to the crying need for a more widespread and lively literary discussion, a bigger presence in American culture, but doesn't really pony up the advertising that might help bring this about.

This presupposes, however, that publishers have the money to do this, when, in fact, publishing has notoriously low profit margins. Which is why the corporate pressure of recent years to get and keep those margins well above 10 percent has twisted many houses into frantic bestseller factories. It also assumes that, at some time, publishers did provide such money. But as I've argued before -- regarding Howard Kurtz and Jay Trachtenberg's mistaken takes on the declining book page -- newspaper book reviews have never made money. Not within living memory at any rate. I cannot recall a single significant ad from a major publisher in The Dallas Morning News' book pages in the past decade. So the cutbacks in book pages have to do with a much wider loss of ad revenue for newspapers than the pittance that publishers traditionally have provided. One would certainly like publishers to provide more advertising, but the current sorry state of book pages is the result of newspaper owners choosing to let their more literate readers suffer by chucking book reviews overboard. Or they feel the literate ones have long since abandoned ship, anyway.

The second failing of Faint Praise is Ms. Pool's inability to suggest any significent remedies. She does argue for an explicit ethics policy to be drawn up by book editors for their reviewers. A good point. I've never seen one in all my years reviewing. Again, the ethics involved may be obvious ("do not praise too highly your spouse's bad lyric poetry"). Or one may even disagree with them. But at least the ground would be clear.

Ms. Pool also argues that the National Book Critics Circle should be doing more, that it's wrapped up in giving out awards and little else. Ms. Pool is an NBCC member, as am I, and her argument had some weight until relatively recently, when the NBCC board stirred itself and established its very useful and welcome blog, Critical Mass, and has embarked on a public campaign to fight book page cutbacks.

The campaign may be a futile, rearguard action, as some have argued (often those who believe the Web is the only future). As much as anything, it's more about simply saving jobs or freelance gigs than raising standards (although we can make the case that those jobs and gigs mean something to the community of readers). But the point still stands: What is to be done? What else could Ms. Pool (or anyone) recommend that NBCC should do to improve book reviewing? The NBCC is volunteer-run (it took the organization years just to get its 501 (3c) non-profit status, something my daughter's therapist managed in a week), and its membership is primarily freelancers -- not a group inclined to coherent, effective, collective action.

A dreadful theater critic I knew once campaigned for the American Theater Critics Association to institute a set of professional standards and, in effect, a licensing authority. One could call oneself a theater critic (and presumably be hired as a critic by newspapers and magazines) only after being tested and approved by a board -- and being issued a magnetic ID card for access to ATCA's secret Area 51 headquarters. Or some such thing. The fact that the critic in question, to support his case, approvingly cited the old membership practices of the Soviet Writers Union shows just how far from this earthly dimension the entire proposal was. Gulag, anyone? As one fellow critic noted at the time, even if we wanted to create such a Stalinist system in the Land of Free Speech, the only reason jaded newspaper editors would give it a moment's thought is if it could be proved that a) it actually improved theater reviewing and, more importantly, that b) the improved theater reviewing increased newspaper sales. Barring this, ATCA (or NBCC) could issue all the edicts and membership exams and decoder rings it wants, but they'll do little to change the reviewing culture at our newspapers.

I do not mean to espouse resignation and futility here. The fact that some journalism departments have started to offer criticism classes is an encouraging sign, although Ms. Pool holds to the admittedly circular stance that such classes won't be effective until standards in the field are better. She thinks the classes will just pass along the established bad habits because that's what the teachers have learned, those are the models out there. I don't buy this entirely, although my faith in academia as the Great Rectifier of Social Evils is feeble. Teachers are often motivated by idealism, though, the desire to improve what's out there, not merely mimic it.

It's also encouraging because of the baseline anti-intellectualism of American newspapers. Journalists haven't devoted book-length studies to reviewing because, like so much in the press, it's viewed more as a craft, as something aimed at Any Straphanger with a 5th Grade Education, than something needing or deserving intellectual consideration. It's still the case at many newspapers that pop music critics and video game critics, for example, are chosen among the youngest, most inexperienced staff members because, presumably, they're more "in touch with the young 'uns." And besides, that's all the subjects are worth. It'll keep the kids away from the important, influential, thoughtful, Pulitzer-winning stuff. Like writing editorial columns getting the Iraq War wrong.

Actually, I often find our newspapers' Front Page anti-intellectualism profoundly healthy, especially in its disrespect for authority. But as Ms. Pool indicates, in such an environment, it's hard, even paradoxical, to pursue any sort of intellectual endeavor (that is, anything requiring more than gut instinct or a five-star rating system). A real review, after all -- not a blurb, not an Entertainment Weekly paragraph with a B plus -- is a demonstration of, an argument for, the reviewer's authority.

In any event, the newspaper book page is worth fighting for, worth arguing about like this, because the Big City Daily remains the only American medium dedicated to providing a decent level of professional book criticism from a number of sources addressing a general but local audience -- and all for a pretty cheap price. Commercial TV and radio do nothing like book criticism, even public television and radio are pretty slack on the job. Cable TV -- what conservatives believe has already removed any need for public TV -- is mostly a joke. Magazines are too small in circulation, too narrowcast yet too scattered. Book blogs are a fascinating new medium but they are certainly preaching to the converted. As cumbersome and faulty and cozily middle-brow as the newspaper book page is, it remains one of the best efforts (one of the only efforts) to engage a city's readers in a common discussion about books and book issues, to lead them beyond personal interests to something new or different in literature. The book page can also advocate for literacy and libraries and education -- all the things that newspaper managements, if they had any brains, would see are vital to their own continuance.

Because Faint Praise depends on well-laid-out arguments more than zippy one-liners, I've taken the liberty of concluding by featuring lengthier-than-normal passages from the book. So Ms. Pool gets the last word, and I risk copyright infringement.

CORRECTION: Sharp-eyed reader Jacob (see "comments" below) has suggested, and Scott McLemee has confirmed, that in the quotation about "practical criticism" that book/daddy borrowed from Quick Study, Scott was actually referring to I. A. Richards' classic text, Practical Criticism and not to book reviewing in general.

book/daddy is particularly embarrassed about forgetting the Richards book because it was practically a manual back when he was in college (when we used to tie an onion to our belt, as was the fashion at the time). Still, the error does not negate his larger argument in those paragraphs: that academics often discount book reviewing (and often because it consorts with commercialism and popular tastes), that regardless of such attitudes, there is a valid distinction to be made between lit crit and book reviewing in the mass media. H'OK?

And now, back to Ms. Pool:


  • Reviewing isn't for everybody: "It is one of the curious aspects of this field that though people deplore the poor quality of reviewing, no one seems to conclude that so many reviews are bad because reviewing is hard to do well. On the contrary, the faults are ascribed to the individual reviewers, and the attitude prevails at all levels of the literary world that reviewing is easy, something anyone can do."
  • Writing novels or even non-fiction books doesn't make an author a good critic (please inform The New York Times): "[Because the hiring process for reviewers] emphasizes writing as if it were a monolithic skill, editors often end up with reviewers who write well but may not be good critics, and authors whose skills may be entirely inappropriate... Fiction writers don't necessarily have a good analytical sense of why a piece of literature succeeds or fails, which is the most useful aspect of the review for the reader.... In hiring authors because they are authors, review editors are turning to writers whose main interest isn't likely to be reviewing; most fiction writers, poets and biographers are primarily interested in writing fiction, poetry and biography, not devoting the best of their energy and attention to criticism. Still worse, editors run the risk of hiring writers whose motive for reviewing is not to evaluate the books at hand but to promote their own names and their latest works."
  • Critics need to work on criticism: "Nothing seems to me more revealing about our cultural attitudes toward book reviewing than this question of 'having work of one's own,' [i.e., the critic writing his own books] which seems peculiarly related to the genre of critical journalism. We don't expect the financial journalist to be a banker or the political reporter to be a politician."

  • The pressures endemic to newspaper reviews: "In an underfunded and underappreciated department, review editors lack clout. They haven't the power to raise reviewer fees, however much they might like to do so. Reviews are assigned little space, or they're given inappropriate space .... Unlike news, which is essential, book reviews are under presure to earn their keep: [newspaper] publishers have sought advertising support, which has commercialized the book page. Confronting hard times in recent years, newspapers cut book pages ... These pressures can lead review editors to seek favorable reviews that will justify the use of space to their own editors, newspapermen who aren't necessarily bookish types and may believe that selecting a book only to find fault with it is to waste valuable column inches.
    Equally important, newspapers' focus on news has led American papers in various ways to treat books as news, striving for such qualities as objectivity, newsworthiness and timeliness, which are news values and are not always appropriate, beneficial or even possible in a literary context."
  • But the Web isn't a paradise for reviewing, either: "Underpaid in print, reviewers and even editors are often unpaid on the Web; a volunteer corps, they can devote even less time and fewer resources to quality, and they have fewer incentives to do so.... Because it's accessible and affordable, the Web does allow for the truly independent reviewer; the individual who sets up a personal Web site for his reviews is, in a literal sense, self-employed and can say precisely what he wants, though whether we can call it 'employment' is dubious [she means "doubtful']... But apart from their own pages, reviewers are writing for particular Web sites and, as with magazines, the editorial aims of an individual site determine the nature of its reviews. ... Reviewers writing for the many genre sites assume and write for an audience of fans, who may be more enthusiastic than discriminating."
  • Nonetheless, book reviews are important -- and not necessarily for book sales: "Although it may seem old-fashioned to say it, and though I'm hardly a disinterested observer, I believe book reviews matter. They matter not only to authors, publishers and critics, those of us in the field whose livelihood and egos are involved; they matter not only to the readers who are trying to use them to guide their reading; they also matter to readers who don't read reviews. They influence reading. Even today, when reviews have been diminishing in number and alternative kinds of book coverage have emerged, hundreds of reviews appear weekly in newspapers, in magazines and on the Web; our most prestigious publications continue to set our literary agenda.... Their commentary influences not only literary standards but also cultural attitudes, helping to shape what we think about many issues and whether we think about certain issues at all."
  • Posted by jweeks at July 26, 2007 10:12 AM

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    COMMENTS

    when what we need, Ms. Pool writes, is "fairness": disagreeing with a book but giving the author his due, acknowledging our own biases, not being blinded by them.

    I cannot tell you how nice it is to see someone else say this. I've run into people who argue that it is entirely possible to be 100% "objective" when reviewing a book, something that I wholeheartedly disagree with---as long as we're human, our evaluations of things will be colored by our opinions. The important thing for me when I review, therefore, is to make sure my readers are aware of my biases, that I take into account that the book might not be aimed at me as an audience, and that I provide enough information that someone who doesn't share my opinions can still glean something of value from my review.

    Posted by: Heather at July 27, 2007 1:49 PM

    Today's blog on "Faint Praise" really knocked me out. I've been wrestling with Joe Nickell on "Flyover Country" because he attracted the attention of the scandalous Tim Barrus, who was fried for inventing an author persona called "Nasdijj." Joe was shocked, SHOCKED by this and warned me to lock my door at night. Then he provoked a full-scale scribble attack on YouTube which scared him even more. Also, Joe thought he was the only arts journalist in the state, but I've sent him news that there are close to a half-dozen more, informal or actually on a payroll. People in Missoula think they ARE the whole state.

    Anyway, your blog was so clarifying and commonsense that I just flat-out loved it.

    This is from a little 3-part series on my own blog: prairiemary.blogspot.com which is supposed to be place-based, but wanders.

    Prairie Mary

    Often breaking down a larger category into a little typology turns out to be revealing, so I tried that with arts reviewers, but not quite from the point of view of attitude, i.e. those who like everything that's put before them versus those who are never pleased. See what you think of this list.

    1. Those working for an institution, such as a newspaper or a TV station. This topic started out talking back to journalists who were asked to review art. They are either salaried or working on a per-piece basis, but in the end they are at the mercy of an editor who is exposed to the pleasure of his advertisers and readers. They are also vulnerable to tradition: what has "always" been considered admirable or "done" in the past. One would expect that to have a suppressive effect on reviewers, though some editors are really quite supportive so long as they aren't subjected to libel suits or accusations that they don't support family values. Of course, it varies what one can say in a tabloid versus what one can say in "Vanity Fair" versus what one can say in a small town weekly newspaper. The point of view of the artists themselves is not necessarily noted.

    One of the problems of a small-market journalist is to understand local "values" and customs. Since many journalists in "flyover country" come from someplace else, are not paid much (so can't drive far or network through hosting), and might be too young to have kids in the local schools (thus having a family critic on board), this can present some problems. I've known them to form little claques who interact only with themselves and begin to feel more superior than connected, "us" against "them." An editor might then have to suggest this is better suited for free-lancing.

    2. Public relations/promoters. I myself have a tendency to be a promoter, esp. when reviewing community-based arts like school products. If it's really awful, I just don't say anything about it. Who wants to crush some kid just starting out and doing their best? This has a dark side among journalists, the suspicion that every bit of information they get from the public is tainted by over-promotion, the shadow of promotional reviewing. On the other hand, there are forces in the commercial world that can crush any journalism that damages their sales, not necessarily just through pulling advertising but also through community pressure and reputation. (I've mentioned the Industrial Cowboy Art Cartel who would like to think of me as an hysterical and thwarted ex-wife.)

    The original reputation of reporters in other fields was that they were tough, I've-heard-everything, Studs Terkel people of the masses. Now I notice that esp. arts critics tend to be nice grad school folks who dress well, read the right books, take the right attitude towards cable TV, and somehow expect to be treated like gentry. If people get angry with them, they're shocked and appalled. In short, they interpret art criticism as an easy field where they can continue their grad school lifestyle in coffeeshops, discussing abstracts. Call the editor.

    2. Peer review -- like writers reviewing other writers. (Maybe you've had this visited upon you in your job. Ugh.) The New York Times is often accused of making trouble by assigning reviews to known competitors, dissenters or enemies of the author of the book in question. Knowing the inside background makes that sort of maliciously intriguing, but the newspaper always professes innocence, surprise, and hurt at the accusation. (Lie down with artists, rise up with bastards. I wonder if the converse is true.)

    4. Mandarins: academic reviewers. Perhaps this developed in imitation of scientific reviews where the idea is to challenge the integrity of the scientific method and the validity of the evidence. Of course, a lot of science, esp. medical science, these days is paid for by pharmacy companies and the like, which skews the results. But I'm talking about arts reviewers. These art mandarins often speak from under the umbrella of the university, invoke "theory" and are used to the coerced agreement of their students. They invent terms and principles that no one else can understand, a secret language.

    "Story Corps" a project that gathers up people's personal stories by erecting recording booths where individuals or couples can go in and talk privately, was heavily criticized by anthropologists who said that the organizers "weren't doing it right." The protocol, the "structure of analysis" etc, was all wrong and didn't conform to the scientific standards of the discipline. Oral historians, a totally different and rather more arts-focused discipline, didn't have qualms about that, but wondered about whether it would cut in on their careers, suggesting that anyone can tell a story. In the meantime the stories that the people told, now archived and accessible through public radio, are so powerful that people sit listening with tears streaming down their faces, tell them to their friends, and never forget them.

    5. Unreliable reviewers, perhaps disguised or anonymous, are always problematic, because we judge the validity of the criticism according to the source. On blogs, where the writer is unknown or pseudononymist, the effect is either God speaking from the clouds or a mouse squeaking in the corner -- we don't know which. No one is omniscient enough to tell us who is authentic, and maybe the argument has enough integrity or resonance that it doesn't matter. The solution that has evolved is the capacity to respond in kind through comments, which generally set the blogger straight in a hurry, though all parties have the ability to knock out offensive comments. (Joe Nickell has asked me not to comment further on the supposed "banning" of Tim Barrus from "Flyover Country," esp since I didn't ask his permission to discuss it in the first place, so I won't.) Anyway, painters, sculptors, contemporary musicians, and particularly actors are prone to playing with their identities as a sort of adjunct art-form.

    6. Visionaries. Some people have an idea of where an art form should "go," what it could be if properly shaped, and therefore make an effort to bring about that effect. For instance, a critic who strongly believed in the value of repertory theatre might reward with compliments all movements in that direction, while blasting Broadway road companies. Art critics of this type have a particular obligation to state their case clearly and openly, rather than engaging in subterfuge -- not for moral reasons, but because people can't really sign on to help if they don't get what the agenda is supposed to be. Visionaries become a kind of artist themselves, as well as being culture critics.

    7. Underground, counter-establishment, and alternative newspapers give their arts critics much more elbow-room so long as they stay within the context of the publication. They can review X-rated material, use "bad" language, blast sacred cows, and explore ideas that the larger community would reject out of hand. But in small communities there might not be enough critical mass to support such a paper. The exception is university towns but also publications that rest on dedicated individuals or groups. For instance, the "Canyon Country Zephyr" in Moab, Utah, has persisted a long time in the face of the commodification of natural wonders, mostly through the courage of Jim Stiles. It's not obscene itself (which is kind of a cheap way to attract an audience anyway), but devotedly uncovers the obscenity of "development" for the sake of profit. Again, though arts criticism is often included, the real criticism is of the culture itself.

    Posted by: Prairie Mary at July 28, 2007 1:06 PM

    By a wide, wide margin, this is absolutely the best essay I've read regarding the current state of book reviews. Most of the propaganda on saving book sections loses me within the first few paragraphs.

    Posted by: marydell at July 28, 2007 3:06 PM

    I suspect Mr. McLemee's mention of "practical criticism" refers to I. A. Richards' close-reading method, not book reviewing.

    Posted by: Jacob at July 28, 2007 9:26 PM

    AAAAH! AAAAH!
    Good point, thanks. I'd completely forgotten about Richards' Practical Criticism -- that staple of my grad school years. Because Scott added that "as it was once called," I just assumed he was referring to the larger practice of reviewing in general. I'll have to ask him.

    Still, it doesn't alter the larger argument of those paragraphs: that academics often discount book reviewing (and often because it consorts with commercialism and popular tastes), that regardless of such attitudes, there is a valid distinction to be made between lit crit and book reviewing in the mass media.

    Posted by: book.daddy at July 28, 2007 9:49 PM

    I've been keeping up with your blog for a while now. I've been reading, with acute interest, your "coverage" of the plight of book reviewers in major media outlets across the country. I finally came out of my blogging lethargy today and put up a lengthy post in honor and support of book critics.

    http://jbrisbin.com/

    Although I'm a writer, I have a profound appreciation for the role of a book critic and I'm a little irritated that there are writers out there who see them as some kind of father they've always hated and seem to find every excuse to rail against them. The loss of book critics is a net loss for everyone, but for readers especially. Critics are an advocate and ally of the Arts consumer and I'm glad that your blog is out there for people to stumble across and (hopefully) gain a little respect for the important job that you do.

    Thanks!

    Posted by: Jon Brisbin at July 28, 2007 11:10 PM

    What a fine essay, Jerome. You make many finely-written and important points.

    Very nice.

    Posted by: David Montgomery at July 29, 2007 10:21 AM

    Thanks. I have my moments.

    Sometimes, I just wish they weren't senior moments -- as with the "practical criticism" correction.

    Posted by: book.daddy at July 29, 2007 12:38 PM

    I'd second (third? fourth?) the praise for this piece - besides everything else, it's a nice example of an underrated function of the book review, that of putting arguments, ideas and facts advanced in books into a wider public forum. (This is one justification for the greater space that books traditionally command in papers compared with other art forms: the film pages, even with a flowering of documentary, remain mostly about film; a good books section can be about everything.)

    But the difference in British reviewing doesn't seem to me to be a question of more outlets and fewer reviewers. It's that most of the influential outlets, and most of their reviewers, are concentrated in a single city, London, many of them after having gone to the same universities. I would be delighted to think that the Manchester Evening News is offering freelance gigs to the modern equivalent of George Orwell, and the Yorkshire Post to the modern equivalent of Anthony Burgess; but having worked for British regional newspapers it seems pretty unlikely, and they certainly aren't showing up on the backs of book jackets. Smaller country, even smaller literary world.

    Incidentally, a defence of fair comment is part of our much nastier libel laws, and it ceases to work if you can be shown to have dishonest motives, such as punishing an enemy or doing down a rival. That was one of the things that got that Sarah Bradford review of the Tina Brown Diana book pulled: she has a Diana book of her own, and she gave a newspaper diary a more explicit preview of the allegations her review only hinted at, allowing Brown to phone up her editor and deny them in advance.

    Posted by: Jasper Milvain at July 31, 2007 12:13 PM

    Yes, I'll admit I was primarily thinking of London publications when I wrote the line about fewer writer-reviewers and many more outlets in the British realm of book coverage, and how that situation fosters more internecine quarreling and buddy-boosting. Yet London still has more outlets for literary reviews than the INFLUENTIAL ones in America. Comparatively speaking, there are only a handful that matter here (and really only one, of course). Every other American outlet is scattered in the hinterlands (and therefore ignored) or tiny in reach (and therefore ignored if the readership doesn't have clout -- like, say, The New Republic's).

    So your point about British papers really bolsters that argument -- I could have simply written American vs. London situations. As you say, small country, even smaller literary world, which is why London still can produce a lively (or vicious) book debate. You know, like university English departments.

    As for your fair comment comment, interesting point: In British libel law, you say, if it can be shown you have a 'dishonest motive,' your review can be killed (or you and the publisher could be sued). In American law, it would seem, you don't need any dishonest motive at all to violate fair comment -- just a really sharp edge to your pettiness.

    Yet Ms. Pool never mentions (nor have I ever heard of) an American book reviewer being brought to court for insulting an author. The infamous case she does discuss -- Dan Moldea's 1994 suit against a bad review in the NYTimes -- ultimately concerned inaccuracies (and their effect on Moldea's career as a journalist) and not on any supposedly negative overkill. Presumably, in America, the legal question would revolve around whether publishing a book made an author a "public figure" and therefore fair game, like any celebrity or politician, for all sorts of cheap shots.

    Thanks much for writing.

    Posted by: book.daddy at July 31, 2007 1:30 PM

    Excellent commentary here, especially Prairie Mary.

    I wanted to mention a piece I wrote on a related phenomena, Literary Disclaimers 101 .

    Now that print publications have pretty much abandoned regular book reviews, the task falls to unpaid litbloggers. Then, we have a deeper problem of managing conflicts of interest. Many reviewers have some kind of personal contact with the authors before the review, which changes the dynamics somewhat. In this email/blogging world, it's quite likely for authors and reviewers to have exchanged words via email or a discussion board once or twice.

    The ability to receive a print review copy depends less on the quality of the book than the promotional budget of the publisher. A self-published book is unlikely to be sent out to potential reviewers; conversely an ebook can't be resold; reviewers won't have objects they can resell at a bookstore.

    Because amazon.com has lots of reviews by people who have actually paid for the book, I'm almost inclined to trust them for the authenticity of their reactions (it's relatively easy to smell astroturf).

    Posted by: Robert Nagle at August 23, 2007 2:44 PM



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