One from the vault: On the practice of book reviewing

December 24, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

I was mucking around on the Wayback Machine and came across an old review I wrote of a book called Faint Praise, about the practice of book reviewing (one of the posts that got lost when I inadvertently napalmed TSR earlier this year.) Given the recent controversy on this site (and elsewhere) as to what constitutes proper reviewing practice, I thought I’d repost the review here, since it makes a number of points that I still consider to be valid for critics – and others – to bear in mind when writing (or reading) book reviews.

I may spend some time over the holiday trying to retrieve a few of the more substantial pieces that got lost in the great TSR debacle of 2009; in the meantime, I offer this one as a stopgap, with apologies to those of you who’ve already read it.

Hindering Horses and Shooting the Wounded (first published July 23, 2007)

Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America. Gail Pool; University of Missouri Press, $21.62 paper, 174 pp., 978-0-8262-1728-8.

Pity the lowly book reviewer. Poorly paid, located at the bottom of the journalistic pecking order, where they toil in what Guy Davenport referred to as “the slum of American letters,” and routinely reviled by readers and writers alike, those who review books professionally (I hesitate to say “for a living,” since only a scant few can earn a living off of it, and they are mostly salaried employees of a newspaper or periodical) often feel that their efforts are both arduous and thankless in roughly equal measure.

“Book reviews first appeared in America at the end of the eighteenth century,” writes Gail Pool in the Introduction to her new book, and “[t]hey have been frustrating people ever since.” Chekhov called book critics “horse-flies which hinder the horses in their ploughing of the soil,” and Murray Kempton opined, “A critic is someone who enters the battlefield after the war is over and shoots the wounded.” Coleridge said that book reviewers “are usually people who would have been poets, historians, biographers, etc., if they could: they have tried their talents at one or at the other, and have failed.”

These disparaging remarks, coming as they do from working writers, all of whom can be assumed at one time or another to have been on the receiving end of a reviewer’s censure, are understandable, but they don’t serve as much balm to a reviewer’s fragile ego, and in any case they miss the point. In particular, the charge that book reviewers are themselves failed writers has always struck me as odd, since book reviewers use precisely the same tools as novelists and poets to achieve their effects. They are only “failed” writers if their reviews lack coherence, or persuasion, or logic; otherwise reviewers have as much claim to being writers, sans l’adjectif, as does anyone else whose primary occupation involves the manipulation of language for the purposes of edification or entertainment.

The common perception of book reviewers as the bottom feeders of the literary world is largely predicated upon a misapprehension as to what exactly this amorphous group of people does. Many observers begin with the notion espoused by Amanda Craig that to review fiction “[a]ll you have to do is read a couple of hundred pages of someone wanking their imagination, and write five hundred moderately clever words about it.” This is dismissive to the point of being insulting, but Craig makes a mistake when she implies that “reading a couple of hundred pages of someone wanking their imagination” – if we might, for a moment, accept this description as an accurate summation of what a fiction reviewer does – then writing five hundred words about it, “moderately clever” or otherwise, is easy work.

Close reading of the kind a solid book review requires is itself not a task undertaken lightly; it is important for a proficient book reviewer to possess the ability to discern how a work achieves its effects and to judge whether the constituent parts of a book add up to a coherent whole. This requires a certain breadth of knowledge, a refined taste, and a sensitivity to nuances of language, none of which can be developed overnight.

Moreover, it is fallacious to suggest that a reviewer who is assigned a 200-page novel will stop at reading those 200 pages. As Pool rightly points out, “if a review is to be accurate, more is generally required than simply reading the book.” If the novel is the third book in a trilogy, for instance, it will be necessary for the reviewer to go back and read (or reread) the first two volumes in order to form any kind of valid perspective on the book in question. Further, if the reviewer is assigned, say, a biography of Richard Nixon, unless that reviewer happens to be a Nixon scholar, it will be necessary to do some background reading and research in order to provide a context within which the book under consideration can be fairly judged. In Pool’s words, “A reviewer can’t become an instant expert, but he can bring an intelligent, informed perspective to a book if he has read, say, all the author’s previous work, several other biographies of the figure whose latest biography he’s reviewing, various travel accounts of whatever country is the subject of his review.”

In his essay, “Confessions of a Book Columnist,” collected in Ripostes: Reflections on Canadian Literature, Philip Marchand sets out two prerequisites for a good book reviewer: (s)he must be well read, and (s)he must be, in the words of T.S. Eliot, “very intelligent.” If this seems somewhat vague, Pool goes further:

Ideally, reviewers should be well educated, widely read, culturally aware, endowed with good memory and, needless to say, good taste. They must be able to read critically, think lucidly, and argue logically. They must write clearly enough to be accessible, sharply enough to be entertaining, and tightly enough to turn seven hundred words into an article. They need sufficient independence of mind to form their own opinions, sufficient confidence to stand by them, and sufficient courage to see them in print.

I have argued repeatedly on this site that book reviewing is not a dilettante’s game; Pool here explains why. The qualifications that she lists as appearing on the “ideal” reviewer’s résumé I would argue are essential for anyone who wishes to practise the trade.

One reason why many book reviews – even (perhaps especially) those that are published in our major news organs – are so lacking in quality, Pool argues, is that editors too often assign books to the wrong people, and the reviews suffer accordingly. A name-brand novelist may bring a publication cachet if assigned to review a major new work of fiction, but that novelist may be utterly incapable of the kind of critical thinking necessary to do justice to a review. Nor, Pool suggests, do academics or specialists in a given field “necessarily make good reviewers”:

It’s one thing to find a William Dean Howells, who was a writer, critic, and editor. Nowadays, most of the people who are ideally qualified in terms of subject expertise and breadth of reading, in fiction as well as nonfiction, are likely to be academics, accustomed to academic writing and discourse – and as someone who has edited such writers, I know well the problems they present. In their own spheres they’ll have no need to make their points accessible to a general audience and will have had little practice in translating what they have to say into readable, let alone lively, prose.

At the other end of the spectrum are the enthusiastic amateurs who proliferate online, where the democracy of the Internet allows everyone a voice, but removes the editorial filter and does not demand that commentators attain a basic level of competence before they begin reviewing. Pool finds legitimate fault with a medium that asserts that all voices are equal and all opinions should carry equal weight, a medium that assigns equal value to the thoughtful, knowledgeable criticism of Sven Birkerts on the one hand, and the semiliterate ramblings of Harriet Klausner,’s top reviewer, with 6,500 reviews and counting to her credit, on the other.

The background for Pool’s analysis is a culture that actively discourages critical thinking, one that would rather have enthusiastic cheerleaders (like Oprah) than incisive critics. Although one of the persistent complaints about book critics is that they are too nasty, Pool finds that the opposite is in fact true: often, critics aren’t nasty enough. It is interesting that both Pool and Marchand make the same comment: both stand by every negative word they ever wrote, but both confess to some retrospective reservations about reviews in which they feel they treated their subjects too kindly. Pool attributes this to “weakness,” and points out that “it takes courage and confidence for a reviewer to go his own way and tell readers that the latest ‘masterpiece’ isn’t very good. Amid the waves of praise, he risks not only what all critics risk, being wrong, but being wrong alone.”

In today’s anticritical culture, it is a rare thing indeed to find a reviewer with the courage to stand out from the crowd and declare that the latest “instant classic” is actually a dud, that the emperor has no clothes. Pool’s book is a clarion call for a return to a vigorous kind of criticism, based on sound, logical thinking and the precise use of language. Her prescriptions for an ailing trade are based upon underlying premises that appear obvious, but that bear repeating:

That not only is reviewing important, but reviewers and editors need to take its importance more seriously than they do, steeling themselves against public opinion, literary snobbery, and their own self-doubt and remembering that cultural attitudes are subject to change. … That not only can reviewing, however insufficient its resources, require standards, competence, and accountability, but by demanding them – and only by demanding them – actually acquire them.