Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America
By Gail Pool
(University of Missouri Press, 192 pp., $34.95)
Book reviewing faces its own “silent spring,” Gail Pool warns in her new book, flashing a distress signal over the endemic rot and habitat destruction laying waste to the field of letters, and doing her darnedest to make people care. Good luck with that. Of all the nightmares on Elm Street haunting America’s sleep, the bleak state of book reviewing would rank rather low on the worry meter, somewhere between the decline of the sitcom and the disappearance of the pay phone. The shrinkage, the consolidation, and the slow massacre of book review sections and arts coverage in the nation’s newspapers and magazines doesn’t seem like an urgent cause, not with so many other, bigger calamities piling up on the docks. In the digital age, book reviewing bears the social handicap of a dying trade, like typewriter repair or horseshoe mending.
A book columnist at numerous papers and a former editor of the Boston Review, Pool recognizes the steep molehill of apathy that her awareness campaign must climb. She understands how hard it is to elicit sympathy for the peon status and precarious condition of freelance reviewers and their frazzled editors, even from fellow writers. (Often especially from fellow writers, many of whom bear the lash marks of a bad review and will never give up their dream of vengeance.) Long before bloggers became synonymous with damp mold and scurrilous invective, book reviewers were cast as the pox carriers and bottom feeders of the word business, tattooed with the rep of being bitter, envious parasites, cunning predators, or charter members of the Dunciad. They tore the iridescent wings off Romantic poets for sport, and crouched in the hills like hyenas waiting for Hemingway to falter. Insidious by nature, they fluff up authors’ reputations in order to fatten them up for the sacrificial kill: the young slain for failing to live up to their early promise, their distinguished elders dragged by their whiskers into the lair of the spider-queen, Michiko Kakutani, to be eaten. Even the most scrupulous and fair-minded reviewer is considered suspect, a discount knockoff of a real writer.
“Dishonesty, meanness, failure—these are images that I as a reviewer have to bear,” Pool confides with an almost audible wince. “My own power often seems confined mainly to elating or depressing an author and is even then begrudged as unearned, undeserved, and abused.” Sure, there are compensations (“As a reviewer I can work at home, in the comfort of my study”), but where is the love, the respect, the appreciation? “It is one of the curious aspects of this field,” Pool remarks, “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.” Justifiably proud of her work ethic, she is offended by the blithe assumption that rendering judgment on a book is a rope trick that the average dope could pick up in an afternoon: “As a reviewer, I found it infuriating to hear people describe reviewing as easy, something anyone could do.” And if it is something anyone can do, its cultural value is thereby diminished. Pool has had her fill of such condescension, and in Faint Praise she sets out to defend the fort against its assailants:
Although it may seem old-fashioned to say it, and though I’m hardly a disinterested observer, I believe that 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. In certain areas, such as literary fiction and serious nonfiction, the books that receive attention tend to be the books that most people read—as individuals, in book groups, in schools. Reviewers’ assessments indirectly help determine which books will win awards and which authors will be well published. 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.
Which is why it dismays Pool to witness the dog-pound shambles into which book reviewing has fallen.
Complaints about the condition of book reviewing in this country are as old as Ben Franklin’s bifocals. Pool acknowledges this. It has been steadily downhill since day one. “Book reviews first appeared in America at the end of the eighteenth century,” Faint Praise begins. “They have been frustrating people ever since.... For two centuries reviews have been lambasted by critics, often reviewers themselves, who have complained that reviews are profligate in their praise, hostile in their criticism, cravenly noncommittal, biased, inaccurate, illiterate, or dull. Generally, the argument runs, American reviewing has never been worse.” Pool cites a well-known essay by Elizabeth Hardwick published in Harper’s in 1959 titled “The Decline of Book Reviewing,” which read like a requiem then; and yet here we are, almost a half-century later, still crabbing and singing the same old blues.
The perceived perennial decline in book reviewing mirrors the perennial decline in book publishing. Like the Broadway theater, the publishing world is always tottering on its last legs, a wheezing shadow of its former glory waiting for the final curtain to drop, only to be jolted back into spastic life by an unexpected franchise boon (John Grisham, the Harry Potter series) and granted enough of a reprieve to keep the pity party going until the next financial slump. Much of this fatalism is standard issue, an occupational tic. It is easy to give in to despair, which is why so many give it a spin. “As anyone in publishing knows,” Pool observes, “it is a self-critical, gloomy, hyperbolic field, in which something is judged to be in decline or dying, whether it’s the novel or books themselves.”
A few of Pool’s own objections about book publicists and the vagaries of reviewing are of this vintage variety, which doesn’t make them any less on target. She criticizes the habit of reviewers to hype their opinions under the pretence of clairvoyance: “Strictly speaking, to say that a book ‘has changed literature’s future’ or has ‘permanently extended the range of the English language’ can have no basis in reality. The reviewer, writing in the present, cannot know either of these things.” She rightly deplores the lazy invocation of pantheon greats to herald the arrival of every literary debutante sashaying down the runway. “Can Ms. Author really be like Zola, Balzac, and Cheever? Who would have dreamed that so many women writers were ‘like Jane Austen,’ so many short story writers ‘like Chekhov’!” She quotes a chunk of comparison-mongering from The New York Times Book Review so convoluted it seems trussed in seaweed: “’Just as certain mystery writers mature into artists—John D. MacDonald and Elmore Leonard come to mind—there are writers of what I will call ‘women’s fiction’ whose real gifts don’t flower until midcareer,’ began a review in The New York Times Book Review. ‘Anne Tyler’s early books were charming but slight; the new ones sure aren’t slight, and she’s earned herself a major place in, if not American literature, then at least American publishing.’ By this point in the review, readers might well have felt confused, as I did, since, as it happened, the book under review was a novel by Maeve Binchy.”
Such bait-and-switch is nothing new with book-chatterers. Wilfrid Sheed poked fun at this gambit in his essay “The Art of Reviewing,” in which he adduced that “a reviewer will do anything to avoid looking a text in the eye. He will drag in authors from Malaysia and the Cinque Portes. ‘A bit like the early Waugh ... the late Firbank ... dare one say Chekhov?’ he babbles. Anything but the unique experience of the book before him. And when he runs out of apples and pears, he starts playing the banana against itself. Perhaps so-and-so’s finest to date. Or else, a decided disappointment after his classic Nonesuch.” Like so many writers, reviewers are often creatures of sloth, prone to facile habits that they seem to have inherited from hacks barely scratching the surface back in Edgar Allan Poe’s heyday. I enjoyed Pool’s misdemeanor citations, without feeling that they represented a new strain of critical fungus.
But just because you are a hypochondriac or an ingrained pessimist doesn’t mean you may not be coming down with something ill, and Pool is convinced that there is more to the current disenchantment with book reviewing than the usual moaning and groaning of Ancient Mariners: “We have only to look at our book pages to see that reviewing ... fails in ways that can’t be dismissed as trivial or excused as inevitable, that unacceptable practices—widely accepted in the field—routinely undermine the very reasons we read reviews.” It isn’t simply that standards have slipped and the caliber of writing and thinking has coarsened, though that may be true. A more radical alteration has occurred, a decoupling from reality. “The reviewer who wrote, ‘It seems for years John Updike has been undervalued as both a master craftsman and ingenious storyteller’—apparently an inhabitant of an alternate universe—is framing his review in a literary world that doesn’t exist.” Too many book reviews in the past may have been conventional paraphrases with a few opinions sprinkled on top, but at least the reader had no problem getting his bearings and following a trail of consecutive thoughts. Today Pool requires a de-scrambling device to translate the alien gibberish being parlayed: “I find myself in a curious zone where the normal rules of language and logic don’t seem to apply, a realm in which syntax, grammar, even meaning have strangely decomposed, and critical standards dissolved.... A zone in which a New York Times reviewer, discussing Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, can remark, ‘Sure, I guess it’s a no-no to put stuff in your book that doesn’t pay off, but I can’t scrape together much outrage when I’m basically having a good time,’ and further observe, ‘If you don’t end up liking each one of Franzen’s people, you probably just don’t like people’—leaving me to wonder whether I can really be reading a major review in our leading newspaper or perhaps a freshman theme.” It’s as if reviewers are migrating away from writing into the chattier mode of texting, letting their thumbs do the blabbing.
The noise volume of this volubility explodes when Pool leaves the fenced-in confines of print and strays into the asteroid belt of Internet reviewing. Buffeted by the fraggy clusterfuck of hidden agendas, free-floating animosity, and arbitrary verdicts, she finds herself clutching her space helmet in the uncharted void. Her locus is the reader-reviewer star system at Amazon books, which Amazon touts as a democratic yawp of the people. It’s more like a carbonated burp. Here is Pool:
And to be sure this is democracy at work. But Amazon has created a system that not only allows but encourages ethical and literary standards far lower than those we find in print reviewing. To begin with, because Amazon neither solicits nor screens reviewers and allows them to remain anonymous, reviewers have the option of being dishonest. Many seize the opportunity. When Amazon’s Canadian Web site went wonky one week in 2004, exposing the names of anonymous reviewers, authors were revealed to have reviewed their own books, promoted the books of friends, and attacked more prominent authors they thought overrated....
If anonymous self-publication paves the way for dishonesty, the reviewer- ranking system encourages it: reviewers competing to improve their ranking can easily ask friends to cast “helpful” votes for their reviews and rise for reasons entirely unrelated to the quality of their critiques. That quality isn’t improved by the fact that the more reviews reviewers write the more helpful votes they may receive, which encourages speedy reviewing and sloppy writing [Pool notes that two of Amazon’s “Top Reviewers” reviewed more than 6, 500 titles each]. And while many reviewers are free to be as unfavorable as they please, and many do pan books, reviews that praise have a better chance of being “spotlighted”: out of 32 spotlight reviews chosen at random, 20 5-star ratings and 5 with 4 stars hardly constitute a strong critical showing. Finally, since Amazon doesn’t screen reviewers for qualifications or edit their contributions, reviewers do not necessarily feel required to know about a subject or even the basics of good writing.
As evidence, she submits a paragraph from a “Top Reviewer” of a novel called The Frog King that reads like spaghetti flung against the wall. “Whatever our complaints about print criticism, it’s hard to imagine a newspaper or magazine publishing a review like that,” Pool comments. But it is a paltry point of pride that could be washed away with the next wave of downsizings, when the last remaining quality-committed book editors find themselves replaced by algorithms and reviewers are left to fend for themselves in this Mad Max world.
In one sense, the democratization of discourse about books is a good thing, and should lead to a widening of our intellectual horizons. The more people there are out there reading, making discoveries, and advocating for their favorite books, the better. But book bloggers have also brought another, less salutary influence to bear on literary culture: a powerful resentment. Often isolated and inexperienced, usually longing to break into print themselves, bloggers—even the influential bloggers who are courted by publishers—tend to consider themselves disenfranchised. As a result, they are naturally ready to see ethical violations and conspiracies everywhere in the literary world. As anyone who reads literary blogs can attest, hell hath no fury like a blogger scorned. And the scorn is reciprocated: Professional writers usually assume that those who can, do, while those who can’t, blog.
In fact, despite what the bloggers themselves believe, the future of literary culture does not lie with blogs—or at least, it shouldn’t. The blog form, that miscellany of observations, opinions, and links, is not well-suited to writing about literature, and it is no coincidence that there is no literary blogger with the audience and influence of the top political bloggers. For one thing, literature is not news the way politics is news—it doesn’t offer multiple events every day for the blogger to comment on. For another, bite- sized commentary, which is all the blog form allows, is next to useless when it comes to talking about books. Literary criticism is only worth having if it at least strives to be literary in its own right, with a scope, complexity, and authority that no blogger I know even wants to achieve. The only useful part of most book blogs, in fact, are the links to long-form essays and articles by professional writers, usually from print journals.
Adam Kirsch issued those warnings about “the scorn of the literary blog” in The New York Sun last spring; and Pool, an unpompous traditionalist, believes, like Kirsch, that intermediaries, gatekeepers, and referees are needed to sift noteworthy books out of the avalanche heap, foster a sense of fair play, and prevent reviewing from degenerating into a prison-yard fight. It won’t be easy maintaining even a modicum of status quo. Morale is low, and apprehension borne of insecurity is rising, as she is aware. Having worked as an editor and a reviewer, Pool has pitched her tent on both sides of this vale of tears and can testify to the pains of each party. “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: a review may run with the obituaries, for example, where no one is likely to look for it or notice it and where it seems to serve as filler. Unlike news, which is essential, books reviews are under pressure to earn their keep.... 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. “ (The most enlightening account of the travails of the book review editor trying to keep from being squished as the corporate walls close in is Steve Wasserman’s recent memoir-essay “Goodbye to All That” in the Columbia Journalism Review. Wasserman is a former editor of the Los Angeles Times book supplement and was the impresario host of its annual literary festival.)
As editors juggle the variables and fight intramural turf wars, the freelance reviewer nurses his or her anxieties in isolation, gnawing on the umbilical cord. It’s lonely inside their shoebox. “Even reliable reviewers face personal crises that make them late; even good reviewers turn in lousy reviews; and even thoughtful reviewers often forget they are among dozens with whom the editor has to be in touch. As an editor, I found that for many freelancers, I was their main contact with the literary world, the person who made them feel part of that world, and they expected me to fulfill the role by talking with them about books. From my perspective, such contact compensated them for the dismal pay.” Not to mention the countless hours they spent stuck inside their heads, boiling a book down to spoon-sized doses. As Sheed compassionately noted in “The Art of Reviewing,” reviewing exacts a disproportionate toll on its literary castaways—so much mental lifting for so few lightning strikes. “All those hours of imaginative re-creation, of bringing a book stuttering to life in his head, and nothing to say at the end but ‘so-so’ or ‘not too bad’—it’s a lot to ask of an assistant professor.”
Pool isn’t asking for more than an assistant professor or a writer-in- residence at Curlew College can give, just a generally accepted framework of guidelines and adult supervision so that readers and authors alike don’t feel as if they have been tossed in a trunk and taken for a ride whenever they read a review. “That we can only do the doable doesn’t mean we can do nothing,” Pool writes, combining pragmatism with grit. She seeks to dispel the hangdog air of self-deprecation that hovers over book reviewing by establishing a baseline of professional competence and discipline that will help enable reviewers to hold their heads proud at publishing seminars and panel discussions, instead of combing their hair over their eyes to cover their shame.
In her concluding chapter, “Improving the Trade,” Pool offers three modest reforms to shore up book reviewing against the surrounding ruins of pop culture (“While our book pages could certainly draw new readers and bring back those who have abandoned them, the audience would not be huge in a country only mildly interested in reading reviews”) until it comes time to hit the lifeboats. Pool’s reforms, which I have boldfaced below, address what she considers the “principal obstacles” clogging the transmission flow: “the oversupply of books, the undersupply of funds, and the absence of critical education among reviewers and readers alike.”
“First, and most essentially, I think we need to devise better means of choosing books for review.” The selection process has become a nightmare. Too many titles are published, too few column inches are allotted for reviews, and frustration reigns as tired old familiars or hot new trendies get the once-over while scores of worthy books die an orphan’s death. Attacking the problem of too many books is a toughie, Pool acknowledges. “It’s hard to see how competing publishers could ever band together to bring this about.” Even if the various houses did hold a superpower summit and achieve consensus to curb surplus production, most likely the least commercial properties would be the first candidates for the chopping block—”so much for literary fiction, poetry, serious nonfiction on unfashionable topics, the kinds of books which often have cultural impact, which may actually last, and which sometimes prove, in the long run, to be the most profitable books of all.” No: fewer, crappier books may not be the ideal solution to overabundance.
“Second, we need to find better ways to reward reviewers.” Yes, cough up some decent dough! Stop trying to fob off those store coupons on us! It’s like a casting call for Les Miserables out there! “Poor pay, which has always been a factor in poor reviewing, may be still more significant today, when it’s neither desirable nor even possible to live the marginal literary life many people aspired to in earlier decades, when poverty in a literary cause had a cachet it no longer enjoys.” Yet I fear Pool rattles the tin cup in vain. If fees are “dismal” now, future budgetary constraints promise more of the meager same, she concedes: “It’s doubtful that publishers concerned that book pages aren’t profitable are going to consider making them still less profitable by raising reviewers’ wages.” And where’s the incentive to acknowledge and reward reviewing as “skilled work deserving of compensation” when there are so many baby squirrels at Amazon and other sites willing to review for free? For freelancers, the financial crunch is only going to get crunchier.
“Third, we need to train—or as Stuart P. Sherman said, ‘develop’—reviewers and review editors, better preparing them for the technical restraints and demands of the genre and, more broadly, alerting them to critical and ethical issues in the field.” Since I learned how to review books by wrestling bears in the Klondike, with only the north wind as my companion, I am a trifle suspicious of putting the Reviewers of Tomorrow through the dry cleaners—I foresee a certain blah uniformity. Pool doesn’t allay one’s doubts with her own qualms about teaching reviewing as a classroom enterprise: “Teachers will be facing students who have already learned about reviewing by reading many poor reviews, and who have assumed that they were good because they were published. Even the best of reviewer-teachers will have trouble discouraging these students, who are eager to get published, from imitating those bad reviews so long as they seem them as publishable. And of course if the teachers themselves are reviewers currently participating in a system of mediocre reviewing, and perhaps themselves writing mediocre reviews, they’ll merely pass along bad habits, perpetuating what we have.” You’ll be able to spot this group of graduates by their glassy expressions.
Other suggestions that Pool makes are small-scale and sensible: book sections should be more coherently structured rather than an improvised collage that forces the reader “to jump from topic to topic and genre to genre”; reviewers should shoulder more responsibility in the assignment process rather than giving a quick, unconsidered yes before they have read the galley and dragging everybody though deadline hell when the book turns out to be a dud (“Reviewers know that returning a book is likely to displease an editor, whose schedule has now been disrupted, and who now needs to find another book and perhaps match it with a new reviewer”); and editors should not bother trawling for Name Authors to bauble their pages (“The idea that ‘authors’ bring status to the book page has been disproven by the fact that our book pages, despite their authorial presence everywhere, have little status,” Pool notes with a pinch of Miss Jean Brodie). With so much bombast about, Pool’s dedication to imbuing the too often unappreciated and shunted aside eight-hundred-word book review with artisan dignity is admirable, an echo of John Updike’s contention that culture is enhanced when writers attack secondary tasks with the same elegance and precision as primary ones: “Excellence in the great things is built upon excellence in the small.”
If Faint Praise has a virtuous flaw, it’s that it thinks too small, is too practical-minded, and doesn’t make ample room for the occasional healthy rampage. It lays so much stress on the stringencies of book reviewing, the shortfalls and iron deficiencies of the form, that it is hard to understand why anyone other than a masochist, a worker drone, or an antennaequivering opportunist would take it up except to notch a byline. Its funky sense of battle fatigue reflects the mood in the editorial trenches, where nothing beckons on the horizon except more bad news. Even the title, Faint Praise, sounds wan and droopy, as if the most that reviews can achieve now is to rack up small yardage, provide a useful service. We’re going to have to make do with making do, is the book’s sober message.
It’s sober, all right. Where is the swashbuckling fun, the exploding scoreboard, the whisking pirouettes? So focused is Faint Praise on institutional woes, incremental change, and improvements in quality control that it scants the virtuoso individuality that makes book reviewing a more interesting activity than, say, raking leaves. Pool appears squeamish about too much personality being injected into the reviewing format, fearing a sloppy overdose of subjectivity and exhibitionism. But if critical deportment means pouring each phrase into a measuring cup, we might as well turn in our magic kits. You wouldn’t divine from this landscape survey of the literary flatlands the thunder and illumination of which book reviews are capable when the right reviewer and the right book meet head-on. Book reviews at full billow can become cultural events: acts of exaltation (Mary McCarthy on Pale Fire), social advocacy (Dwight Macdonald on Michael Harrington’s The Other America), reassessment (Brigid Brophy on Franoise Sagan), wrecking-ball demolitions (Macdonald on James Gould Cozzens’s By Love Possessed, Sheed on Norman Podhoretz’s Making It, Whittaker Chambers on Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, Alfred Chester on John Rechy’s City of Night, Pauline Kael on Mailer’s Marilyn, Dale Peck’s Sweeney Todd exploits in these pages), reconstructive character surgery (Clive James on Zachary Leader’s biography of Kingsley Amis in the Times Literary Supplement), and literary resurrection (Gore Vidal on Dawn Powell). Why not reach for the stars? Imagine how much livelier criticism would be if novice reviewers—instead of dreaming of the day when they, too, might meet Malcolm Gladwell and his hair—availed themselves of review collections by Sheed, Brophy, McCarthy, Kingsley Amis, Martin Amis, Marvin Mudrick, Seymour Krim, H.L. Mencken, Anatole Broyard, and Philip Larkin and entertained those voices in their heads. What a tutorial that would be. Anyway, it beats moping.
James Wolcott is a contributing writer to Vanity Fair.