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.