One-Minute Book Reviews

February 24, 2008

Did Your Sunday Paper Call a Book an ‘Instant Classic’ Today?

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If so, you can nominate the review for a One-Minute Book Reviews Gusher Award for Achievement in Hyperbole. A classic has proved its worth over time. So “instant classic” is self-contradictory hyperbole. (A critic could solve the problem by writing that a book “deserves to become a classic.”) To submit a review for consideration for a Gusher Award, leave a comment or use the e-mail addresses on the “Contact” page and mention the nomination in your subject heading.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 18, 2008

No Raves for Critics in ‘Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America’

A critic reviews Sunday book sections, the Amazon “reader-reviewer” system and more

Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America. By Gail Pool. University of Missouri Press, 170 pp., $34.95, hardcover, and $19.95 paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Conflicts of interest are so common in book reviewing that the New York Review of Books is sometimes called “The New York Review of Each Other’s Books.” Gail Pool rightly faults the literary incest and other ills in Faint Praise, a book that aims to diagnose and prescribe cures for a trade in the throes of multiple system failure.

So I was startled to discover that the critic Steve Weinberg had raved about Faint Praise in a review in the Boston Globe. He didn’t mention that he may have loved the book partly because he appears briefly in it. Pool quotes him in making her case that – you guessed it – book editors don’t do enough to screen out critics who have conflicts of interest.

It’s easy to see why an editor might assign a book to a critic who’s quoted in it if the volume dealt with a subject – say, interplanetary dust or Romanian poetry in translation – on which there are few experts. But there were hundreds, maybe thousands, of people qualified to write about Faint Praise. So why did the Globe pick a critic whom readers might suspect of having a conflict of interest? And why didn’t it require him to disclose in his review that he’s in the book? If the Globe didn’t require the disclosure, why didn’t Weinberg — whose tagline says that he “tries to promote better reviewing as an elected director of the National Book Critics Circle” — disclose it voluntarily?

Welcome to the Salvador Dalí exhibition that American book reviewing has become, a surrealistic realm where you often get the time from melted watches. As it happens, I have a few paintings of my own in that show: I like Pool and Weinberg, both of whom reviewed for me at the Plain Dealer, and have reviewed for the Globe. Even so, I would never have assigned Pool’s book to Weinberg. And that difference of opinion suggests a theme of Faint Praise: Book reviewing in America is a maw of clashing policies, standards and approaches to the craft. The state of the institution is such that highly experienced editors and critics may disagree strenuously about what’s acceptable and what’s not.

Pool traces the conflicts back to the late 18th century, when the first book reviews appeared in America, and shows how they have multiplied the age of Oprah, Amazon “reader-reviewers” and the proliferation of book clubs. She also proposes solutions that few people could fault, such as training reviewers better and developing ethical guidelines for them. And if you would need to be a book editor or Amazon executive to implement some of her ideas, she makes other points that could help anybody who wanted to write better reviews.

Take her indisputable argument that book reviewing has become infested with clichés or off-the-rack adjectives — such as “astonishing,” “luminous” and “compelling” — that often substitute for a serious attempt to grapple with a book. What, really, does it tell you about a book to read that a critic finds it “astonishing” when a book can be astonishingly good or, as so many are, astonishingly bad? Yet if you Goggle “astonishing book” + “New York Times Book Review” to see how many times the Sunday book section of the Times has used the phrase, you will get more than 1,500 returns. Some of the returns clearly result from the repetition of a quote on multiple sites. But you will get 480 more examples if you Google “astonishing novel” + “New York Times Book Review” and others if you try variations such as “astonishing writer” or “astonishing poet.” And that’s just the tally for the Sunday section of one paper. You might get thousands — perhaps millions — more if you searched for the phrase in other publications. Pool is clearly asking an overdue question when she wonders: How can you trust the praise for books when there’s so much of it and so much of it is so over-the-top?

Valid as such challenges are, Faint Praise tends to suggest retail changes in a field that begs for wholesale. Pool identifies correctly many of the minor ethical issues in book reviewing but ignores – and seems unconcerned about – some that are major. One is that newspapers that don’t let their travel editors to take free trips do allow their their book editors to accept free books worth hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, perhaps millions at the largest papers. These freebies can skew book reviewing in many ways. They may help to explain, for example, why so many unworthy books get overpraised or even reviewed at all: An editor who gets thousands of dollars’ worth of free books a month from a publisher may feel intense pressure to review some of them, even if they’re awful. The ever-rolling pork barrel may not influence what critics say about books, but it can affect which books an editor assigns for review. That’s a more troubling issue, because the results are much harder for readers to see than the biases of cranky reviewers. And while I’m all for the ethical guidelines Pool would like to see more publications develop, they’re no substitute for moral courage on the part of individual critics, including a willingness to go againt the grain whenever it would serve the interests of truth and readers.

So Faint Praise is far from a definitive statement on the ills of American book reviewing. But as far as it goes, it’s better than any book we have on the subject. If its proposed changes are cautious, Pool is bolder in describing the present woes, including that “reviewers who write sophomoric criticism can appear in our leading publications” — a point well supported by examples from the New York Times Book Review and other publications. She believes that if better reviewing is to occur, it’s the editors of book sections who will “make it happen.” More books like Faint Praise could make it happen, too.

Best line: Pool’s observation that “reviewers who write sophomoric criticism can appear in our leading publications and reviewers who write meaningless sentences can win prizes in criticism.” If she seems to be exaggerating – which she isn’t – consider this line from a review of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections in the New York Times Book Review: “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.” The reviewer added: “If you don’t end up liking each one of Franzen’s people, you probably just don’t like people.” In other words, if your taste differs from that of the Times, you’re a misanthrope.

Worst line: “More than 150,000 books are published in the United States each year.” Who says? On the same page, Pool says that 549 new films came out in 2005 and attributes the figure to the Motion Picture Association of America. So what’s the source for that “more than 150,000”? The figure may have come, uncredited, from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which tracks the number of books published by country and says 172,000 appeared in the U.S. in 2005 en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Books_published_per_country_per_year. But you expect consistent attribution in a scholarly-press book with end notes.

Published: Summer 2007 www.umsystem.edu/upress/

Furthermore: Other material about Faint Praise appeared on this site on Jan. 23 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/01/23/ and Feb. 15, 2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/02/15/. For ideas on how to get started in book reviewing, visit the Tips for Successful Book Reviewing page www.bookcritics.org/?go=tips on the National Book Critics Circle site. Steve Wasserman, fomer book editor of the Los Angeles Times, offered a different perspective on the decline of reviewing in the September/October 2007 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review www.cjr.org/cover_story/goodbye_to_all_that_1.php?page=all.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. She would like to expand One-Minute Book Reviews to include podcasts, broadcasts and other services, such as online book discussion groups or forums in “real time,” and would like to find a home for this blog that would make it possible to provide these.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

February 17, 2008

There Were 172,000 Books Published in the U.S. in 2005 …

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… according to United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which tracks the number of books published per country per year en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Books_published_per_country_per_year.

So why does it often seem so difficult to find a great new book to read? Maybe the problem lies less with books than with the established practices in American book reviewing, an institution rife with ethical conflicts, review inflation and other problems that can make it hard to tell the gold from the pyrite.

Tomorrow One-Minute Book Reviews will review Gail Pool’s Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America, in which a longtime critic asks: Why is so much book reviewing in the U.S. so bad? And what can be done about it?

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 15, 2008

Two, Four, Six, Eight / Now’s the Time to ‘Salivate’! This Week’s Gusher Award for Achievement in Hyperbole in Book Reviewing Goes to …

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And this week’s Gusher Award for Achievement in Hyperbole goes too …

This book “will leave readers salivating for more.”
From a review of Special Topics in Calamity Physics in the New York Times Book Review, Aug. 13, 2006 www.nytimes.com/2006/08/13/books/review/13cover.html

Comment:

Even by the embarrassingly uncritical standards of contemporary literary criticism, the praise for Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics (Penguin, 528 pp., $15, paperback) went over the top. Many reviewers gushed not just about the novel but about the author’s youth and good looks as though they were writing for Hairdo magazine instead of major newspapers.

This week’s winner took the top honor because it double-faults. It’s unclear and presumptuous. What does “salivating” mean here? I may have defective salivary glands. But I can never quite figure out how to “salivate” for books – even by writers I love — as though I were, say, an unusually literary Weimaraner. If a critic does find him- or herself “salivating,” why not just say that (in the first-person) instead of projecting the response onto others (while hiding behind the third person)?

At least among critics, the bold prophecy of mass salivation for Special Topics in Calamity Physics seems to have gone unfulfilled. Ann Cummins wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle that Pessl’s novel rates “that lamest of grades, an ‘I’ for Incomplete.” Donna Rifkind said in the Washington Post that Pessl is a “vivacious writer,” but that “hunkering down for 514 pages of frantic literary exhibitionism turns into a weary business for the reader.” And Peter Dempsey of the Guardian faulted the book for “a page-by-page cascade of dreadful extended metaphors.” “Baldly put,” he said, “Pessl has a tin ear for prose.”

One-Minute Book Reviews welcomes nominations for the Gusher Award. 

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Was Norman Mailer’s Biography of Marilyn Monroe ‘A Labor of Lust’?

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Norman Mailer wrote a full-page letter to the New York Times Book Review to protest the editor’s decision to assign his novel Harlot’s Ghost to the critic John Simon, Gail Pool recalls in Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America (University of Missouri Press, 170 pp., $19.95, paperback). The novelist said that Simon wasn’t a fair choice partly because he had derided Mailer’s Marilyn: A Biography as “a labor of lust … a new genre called transcendental masturbation or metaphysical wet dreaming … a grisly roller-coaster ride along a biceps gone berserk.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

 

February 8, 2008

And the First Gusher Award for Achievement in Hyperbole Goes to …

This is the first in a series of Friday posts in that will recognize out-of-control praise for books (in addition to any other posts that appear that day). At the end of this post you’ll find an explanation of why I am withholding the reviewers’ names in most posts, though I am providing a link to the review when one is available.

And the first Gusher Award for Achievement in Hyperbole in Book Reviewing goes to:

“Everyone in the world should read this book.”
From a review of Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier in the Washington Post, Feb. 23, 2007
www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/02/22/AR2007022201958.html

Comment:

The population of the world was more than 6 billion as of January 2008. And there’s no one among the 6 billion people who shouldn’t read this book? This praise would defy common sense even if the Australian hadn’t raised serious questions about the credibility of Beah’s story.

Why I am withholding the reviewers’ names in most of these posts:

These posts will generally withhold the reviewer’s name for two reasons. One is that the purpose of the Gusher Awards isn’t to say “X is a bad writer” but to say “This is bad reviewing.” X may be a good writer who had a bad day.

The second — and more important — reason is that at major publications the blame for hyperbole never lies with the reviewer alone. An editor (often more than one) has to approve the over-the-top praise. Here’s how the process might work at a newspaper or magazine with a substantial book-review section: An associate or deputy editor of the section assigns the review and edits it after it comes in. At least two other editors then read the review: the editor of the section and a copyeditor (whose job consists, in part, of making sure that the review conforms to the house style of the publication). The review might also be read by a) others on the staff of the section; b) the book-section editor’s boss (such as an assistant managing editor at a newspaper); and c) his or her boss, such as the editor-in-chief of the publication.

In other words, at least two or three editors — and as many as five or six — may have read an overheated review. But because it’s impossible to know exactly who approved the hyperbole, I’ll omit most names, though I may sometimes mention them for reasons I’ll explain on a case-by-case basis.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

February 6, 2008

The Gusher Awards for Achievement in Hyperbole — Starting Friday on One-Minute Book Reviews

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“Five thumbs up!” “You’ll laugh till you pee!” “Not since Tolstoy …”

Tired of reading lines like these in book reviews in respected magazines and newspapers? Or of seeing modestly promising first novelists hailed as the next Henry James or Edith Wharton?

You can fight hype and review inflation by nominating your candidates for the One-Minute Book Reviews Gusher Awards for Achievement in Hyperbole. A new winner will be named on the site every Friday beginning Feb. 8.

Here’s how to nominate your candidates:

1. Look for book reviews that go over the top. A rave won’t qualify if it’s an intelligent rave. Nor will a review qualify just because you and I disagree with it. The comments in the review need to defy belief or common sense. Several examples appeared in a recent post about Gail Pool’s Faint Praise, including a Boston Globe review that said that Zadie Smith’s White Teeth had “changed literature’s future” www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/01/23/. The quote you nominate does not need to have appeared in the past week.

3. You can nominate a candidate by using the e-mail address on the Contact page on this site or by leaving a comment on any post that relates to the Gusher Awards, including this post. Please list the comment, the magazine or newspaper that published it, the date of publication and, if possible, a link. If you nominate a comment by e-mail, please refer to the awards in the subject heading and let me know if you’d like a “Submitted by …” credit if I use the comment.

4.You don’t have to explain what’s wrong with the quote. Most of the quotes should speak for themselves. If you want to explain what’s wrong, please comment on the quote, not on the reviewer. No personal attacks.

5. The Gusher Awards will generally honor reviews in publications large enough to use professional reviewers, such as daily newspapers and mass-market magazines — not community weeklies that depend on unpaid amateurs. The awards may also honor some blurbs.

Don’t forget that the finalists for the Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books will be announced on Feb. 29, so you can nominate candidates for those, too.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

How to Get Started as a Book Reviewer — Tips From the National Book Critics Circle

If you think that trying get book-review assignments is like trying to get work decorating staterooms on the Titanic, the NBCC suggests how to avoid the icebergs

Later today I’m going to announce a new series of negative achievement awards for hyperbole in book reviewing that will begin Friday on this site, so I’ve been looking around the Web for posts that tell how to avoid over-the-top praise in reviews (and, indirectly, how critics can keep their name off the list of winners). The Tips for Successful Book Reviewing page www.bookcritics.org/?go=tips on the National Book Critics Circle site wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, partly because it’s more about how to get started as a book reviewer than about how to write good reviews.

But it has great advice for anyone who’s wondering if you can still get review assignments now that so many books sections have shrunk or vanished, or if this effort wouldn’t be like trying to get work decorating the staterooms on the Titanic. Rebecca Skloot www.home.earthlink.net/~rskloot/of the NBCC compiled the page with help from Elaine Vitone and delivers on the subtitle of her article, “Strategies for Breaking in and Staying in: Getting started as a critic, building your reviewing portfolio, going national, and keeping editors happy.” Here’s her most important point:

“Read good criticism. There are several authors who regularly gather their reviews and essays into collections that show how good criticism must be to stand the test of time. The NBCC has awarded several of these books prizes in our criticism category: Cynthia Ozick’s Quarrel & Quandary, William H. Gass’ Finding a Form, John Updike’s Hugging the Shore, Martin Amis’ The War Against Cliche, William Logan’s The Undiscovered Country, and Mario Vargas Llosa’s Making Waves are essentials in any critic’s library. Going back even further, the essays of T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Borges, and Orwell remind us how criticism can be the intellectual record of our times. Notice, too, how the very best criticism is driven by metaphors and ideas and examples, not adjectives.”

Skloot is right about those adjectives, and if you aren’t sure how many adjectives are too many, watch this blog for examples after the new awards series is announced.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation. Janice Harayda is a former member of the NBCC board of directors.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

January 23, 2008

Would It Help If Book Critics Switched to Decaf? Review Inflation Spins Out of Control at U.S. Newspapers and Magazines (Quote of the Day/Gail Pool)

So many book reviews are so overheated, you almost need to handle them with asbestos tongs. Gail Pool gives examples of the review inflation in her recent Faint Praise:

“ . .. how can I believe the praise [in reviews] when there’s so much of it and so much of it is over the top? On a single Sunday book page, Boston Globe reviewers declare that Michael Ondaatje, in Anil’s Ghost, has created ‘a novel of exquisite refractions and angles: gorgeous but circumspect,’ that Rupert Thomson’s The Book of Revelation has ‘that rightness that makes a work of art,’ that Leonard Michael’s Girl with a Monkey is ‘uncompromising fiction. … They hardly make it like that anymore,’ and that Zadie Smith, in White Teeth, has ‘changed literature’s future.’ The Washington Post Book World, reviewing Rick Moody’s memoir, says that its ‘timeless exploration of the issues that are essential to what it means to be an American makes it likely that The Black Veil will take its place among classic American memoirs’; Boston Book Review proclaims that Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, has ‘permanently extended the range of the English language’; …

“How can I trust such assessments to guide my reading when most books, I find, are at best pretty good, and when I know that few books in a century change literature let alone the English language?”

Gail Pool in Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America (University of Missouri Press, $19.95, paperback) www.umsystem.edu/upress, a critique of book reviewing in newspapers, magazines and other media. Pool is a Massachusetts writer who edited Other People’s Mail: An Anthology of Letter Stories. She wrote a column on new fiction for the Plain Dealer when I was the book editor.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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