One-Minute Book Reviews

July 23, 2008

Editors Protest Plans to Kill LA Times Sunday Book Review Section — Read Their Letter About Why This Hurts the City and Others

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The Los Angeles Times plans to kill its Sunday Book Review section and fold any surviving reviews into the paper’s Sunday Calendar section, Editor & Publisher and other publications have reported. Four former editors of the section have released a letter explaining how they believe the decision will hurt the city and others, which you can read here www.laobserved.com/archive/2008/07/book_editors_protest_cuts.php. This letter is one of many such laments for the demise of book review sections that have appeared recently, but it is unusually blunt, intelligent and authoritative.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 8, 2008

‘Librarians Need Two Book Reviews to Justify Book Purchases for Libraries’ (Quote of the Day / Jane Ciabattari)

Media coverage of the decline of book-review sections has focused on the effect of the trend on authors, readers, and publishers. Jane Ciabattari, president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org, raises a frequently overlooked issue in the Winter 2008 issue of the Authors Guild Bulletin (“Book Reviews: In Print, Online, and In Decline?”) when she says that “librarians need two reviews to justify book purchases for libraries.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 3, 2008

Tomorrow — Another Gusher Award for Achievement in Hyperbole in Book Reviewing

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Every Friday One-Minute Book Reviews hands out a new Gusher Award for Achievement in Hyperbole in Book Reviewing in addition to any other posts that appear that day. The awards honor over-the-top praise for fiction, nonfiction and poetry, generally in major magazines and newspapers (including influential specialized publications, such as Library Journal and School Library Journal). To nominate an overheated review for a Gusher, please leave a comment or use the e-mail address on the “Contact” page on this site.

March 27, 2008

Good Riddance to Book-Review Sections? Quote of the Day (Steve Wasserman)

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Why have so many book-review sections shrunk, disappeared or turned into cheerleading squads for major publishers? Critic Gail Pool explores some of the reasons in her Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/02/18/ .

But literary agent Steve Wasserman, former editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, goes further in a recent essay in the Columbia Journalism Review. Wasserman calls some book-review sections “shockingly mediocre.” And his article explains, better than any I have read, why their perilous condition reflects more than — to oversimplify a popular argument — cretins in the accounting department.

Here are some excerpts from Wasserman’s CJR article, which you can read at www.cjr.org/cover_story/goodbye_to_all_that_1.php?page=all.

“That book coverage is disappearing is not news. What is news is the current pace of the erosion in coverage, as well as the fear that an unbearable threshold has been crossed: Whether the book beat should exist at all is now, apparently, a legitimate question.…

“The predicament facing newspaper book reviews is best understood against the backdrop of several overlapping and contending crises: The first is the general challenge confronting America’s newspapers of adapting to the new digital and electronic technologies that are increasingly absorbing advertising dollars, wooing readers away from newspapers, and undercutting profit margins; the second is the profound structural transformation roiling the entire book-publishing and book-selling industry in an age of conglomeration and digitization; and the third and most troubling is the sea change in the culture of literacy itself, the degree to which our overwhelmingly fast and visually furious culture renders serious reading increasingly irrelevant, hollowing out the habits of attention indispensable for absorbing long-form narrative and the following of sustained argument….

“A harsher truth may lurk behind the headlines as well: Book coverage is not only meager but shockingly mediocre. The pabulum that passes for most reviews is an insult to the intelligence of most readers. One is tempted to say, perversely, that its disappearance from the pages of America’s newspapers is arguably cause for celebration.”

Wasserman is managing director of the New York office of the literary agency Kneerim & Williams at Fish & Richardson and book editor of www.truthdig.com.

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

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 11, 2008

Do We Need ‘Black Box’ Warnings for Toxic Memoirs?

Some readers may fume about Ishmael Beah’s book, but the publisher appears indifferent to the controvesy

You know that “black box” warning that the Food and Drug Administration requires drug companies to put on the labels of some medications? The one that means that a drug may carry a significant risk of causing serious harm or even death?

Lately I’ve been wondering if we need a similar label for books. A label that means: Warning! This book makes claims nobody can verify. Reading it may cause serious harm or even death to your faith in the author’s credibility. The publisher’s response to questions about the book may cause nausea.

For several weeks the newspaper the Australian has been publishing articles that cast serious doubt on many of the statements that Ishmael Beah makses in his A Long Way Gone, including his assertion that he was a child in Sierra Leone for two years – the foundation of his book, billed as a “memoir.” Beah and his publisher, the Sarah Crichton Books imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG), have responded to these articles in ways that are startlingly cavalier or, as one news service put it, “blasé.” Asked if the firm planned to answer one report by the Australian, a senior vice president of FSG joked to the New York Observer that he was “responding with an ulcer.” How funny will this be to people who bought the book in good faith that they would be reading the true story of someone who spent years as a child soldier?

The insensitive responses may tarnish the reputation of FSG, widely regarded as one of the two most prestigious publishers in the U.S. along with Alfred A. Knopf at Random House. They also show a lack of respect for readers, who deserve a better explanation for what is and isn’t true in A Long Way Gone. The “blasé” attitude means, in part, that you need to approach with caution any FSG memoirs, particularly those from first-time authors or others who lack established reputations.

How should critics respond to the indifference by Farrar, Straus and Giroux? Some may stop reviewing FSG books for a while. This would penalize authors and others who are blameless in this fiasco. So I’m going to the adapt the FDA’s idea: Put the equivalent of a “black box” warning on each FSG memoir that is reviewed on this site until the responses by the firm reflect the gravity of the situation.

If you’re not a professional critic, you have another option – return your copy of A Long Way Gone to your bookstore, Starbucks or other vendor. Even if you no longer have your receipt, the circumstances are unusual enough to warrant a refund without it. FSG has sold more than 600,000 copes of A Long Way Gone. How long do you think it would take the company to start providing better answers if just one percent of those readers showed up at bookstores tomorrow and asked for their money back?

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

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

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 24, 2008

An Open Letter to Ishmael Beah About the Questions Recently Raised About His Memoir, ‘A Long Way Gone,’ by Reporters for The Australian

Mr. Ishmael Beah
c/o Sarah Crichton Books
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
19 Union Square West
New York, New York 10003

Dear Mr. Beah:

Nearly a year ago, One-Minute Book Reviews questioned how you could have seen some of the things you claim to have observed in A Long Way Gone, your gripping memoir of your experiences as a teenage soldier in Sierra Leone. This site raised its questions first in a review of your book www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/02/27/ and then in a reading group guide www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/05/. The guide noted that John Corry, who has reported from West Africa, said in his review in the Wall Street Journal: “It is permissible to wonder whether Mr. Beah is accurately recalling events and people and what they said.”

More recently the newspaper The Australian raised questions about the timeline of your story www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,23082274-2703,00.html. You responded to these by saying, in part, “I am right about my story. This is not something one gets wrong. … Sad to say, my story is all true” www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6524214.html%5E. The Australian disputes this and challenges your criticism of the paper in a statement posted by Publishers Weekly www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6525128.html.

In any case your response to The Australian was so prompt that I hope you will now be willing to respond to questions I raised last year. Some involve a scene on page 97 of A Long Way Gone (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007) www.fsgbooks.com. You say that you and friends “lay in the dirt” on a coffee farm near a ruined village and eavesdropped on rebels who played cards and chatted “for hours.” You write that you heard one rebel say his group had just burned three villages:

“Another rebel, the only one dressed in full army gear, agreed with him. ‘Yes, three is impressive, in just a few hours in the afternoon.’ He paused, playing with the side of his G3 weapon. ‘I especially enjoyed burning this village. We caught everyone here. No one escaped. That is how good it was. We carried out the command and executed everyone. Commander will be pleased when he gets here.’ He nodded, looking at the rest of the rebels, who had stopped the game to listen to him. They all agreed with him, nodding their heads. They gave each other high fives and resumed their game.”

My questions include: How could you and your friends have been close enough to overhear that conversation yet avoid detection “for hours” by the rebels? If you could see a rebel “nod” and others “nodding” in agreement, how could the rebels could not see you? In your time as a solider, did you take any any notes that would help you remember conversations in such detail? Or were you relying only on the “photographic memory” that you say in your book that you have? If you took notes, how did you hide them while you were a soldier and get them out of the country later on?

I would appreciate any clarification you can provide.

Sincerely,

Janice Harayda
One-Minute Book Reviews

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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