"The bookful blockhead ignorantly read" - Alexander Pope
September 22, 2012 12:10 AM   Subscribe

A Short History Of Book Reviewing's Long Decline: 'By the time of the first quote “book-review,” criticism had been in circulation for centuries—long enough for writers to know how it can sting. Understandably, then, the critic’s skepticism of an artist's genius has invariably existed alongside the artist's doubt over the critic's judgment.'

Against Enthusiasm: The epidemic of niceness in online book culture.
Not to share in the lit world's online slumber party can seem strange and mark a person as unlikable or (a worse offense in this age) unfollowable. This kind of rationalization might mostly take place in our lizard brains, but I'd argue that it's the reason why the literary world—a famously insular community to begin with—has become mired in clubbiness and glad-handing.
A Critic’s Case for Critics Who Are Actually Critical
Most of us, when confronted with painful words, can’t resort to firearms or loogies, as much as we’d enjoy it. Instead we stew. We struggle to be as chipper as the novelist Kingsley Amis, who commented that a bad review could ruin breakfast but should not ruin lunch. It probably helped that Amis drank at lunch.
A Critic's Manifesto
I thought of these writers above all as teachers, and like all good teachers they taught by example; the example that they set, week after week, was to recreate on the page the drama of how they had arrived at their judgments. (The word critic, as I learned much later, comes from the Greek word for “judge.”)
John Scalzi on (Not) Reviewing Books
As an author and as a long time professional critic/reviewer (movies, music, video games), I am occasionally asked to write reviews of upcoming books for media outlets. Generally speaking I turn down these offers. Here’s why.
The Longform Guide to Takedowns, hosted on Slate.
posted by the man of twists and turns (11 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I regularly reviewed books for a large Sydney newspaper for eight years until the beginning of this year. What did for it was neither an insufficiency of critical apparatus, nor excessive politesse, nor a lack of readers with the supposedly requisite attention span. It was an inability on the part of the organisation to continue to sell the real estate classifieds that paid for the whole shebang, it being so much better and cheaper to advertise on the internet. Turns out it costs a lot of money to print and move large piles of paper around the country — so less newspaper is the first thing publishers under financial stress look to. And when people are looking to shave inefficiencies — and newsprint — the first thing to go is always the arts journalism. However bad or inadequate the previous régime may have been, it's infinitely depressing to see what's taking its place — paid Amazon puffs, author sockpuppet shenanigans and the like.

Ah well, onwards and upwards.
posted by Wolof at 2:08 AM on September 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

Book reviews as a published artifact may be dead, but I disagree strongly that book reviewing is dead. If I am interested in a book, it's always easy for me to find a few blog posts discussing it or to go to Amazon and read the non-shill reviews. (Weirdly, most books I'm interested in seem to have few, if any, shill reviews.) I also usually see mentions of the book in my social media landscape, which is analogous to a friend's book recommendation with the caveat that the book need not be popular in the small city where I live.

On the whole, I think it's a little unnecessary to bemoan the death of the practical review; they're around, and still helping us buy books. What is dying is the newspaper-style review, which often enough was a gossipy account of some aspect of literary culture that I don't care about. If it reduces the prominence of the "New York cozy" book culture, well, I'm thrilled.
posted by sonic meat machine at 4:21 AM on September 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

That's a good post. I liked the following bit and I doubt it's disconnected from the broader societal realities and the diminishing role of books as some of their functions are assumed by newer media.

Around this time, Richard Price, writing at Critical Mass, offered his own assessment of how the new environment was shifting criticism: "I think our crisis is instant evaluation versus expansive engagement, real time versus reflective time, commodity versus community, product versus process. Substituting a user’s rating for a reader’s rearrangement threatens to turn literature into a lawn ornament.

When Elizabeth Gumport says If we wouldn’t describe a book to someone we wanted to sleep with, we shouldn’t write about it, I think she's presuming about the interests of people "we" would want to sleep with or trying to say not to review mediocre books. After reading her whole piece, I disagree even more. "Experience" is earned by reading a book, and surely being told that a book is not worth it takes up less time than reading it. It's not as if reviewers don't know that there is limited time in their lives.
posted by ersatz at 5:34 AM on September 22, 2012

Funny. I am an author who reviews books. Actually, real critical reviews of books which I have been told are generally helpful (and, if my amazon affiliate sales are an indication, genuinely are). I've written about it in the past, but not since last January or so simply because I was tired of feeling embroiled in drama. I found a better use of my time was actually, you know, writing, and writing about books, and reviewing.

Anyway, critical reviewing is alive and well if you follow the right reviewers.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:45 AM on September 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think I buried the lede on this one

N+1 Magazine Against Reviews
If book reviews are nothing but free advertising, they are among the most ineffectual, ill-conceived marketing campaigns ever conceived. It’s strange to think that an account of what’s inside a book would be a good way to sell it. Imagine if McDonald’s commercials told you what went into a Big Mac: rehydrated onions, high-fructose corn syrup, ammonia-treated beef.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 6:54 AM on September 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Three Percent Podcast had an interesting episode on the subject recently, with special guest Jacob Silverman who wrote "Against Enthusiasm," featured in this post.

Personally, as an author I find it invaluable to have a good critical environment ready out there when I put books out. As a reader, having good reviewers is wonderful. Many, many of my favorite books I would never have found without reading laudatory reviews of them by critics who I trust.

To give a recent example of a book that I would never have read without coming across a review by a critic whose taste I respect, Paul Di Filippo's praise of The Mirage by Matt Ruff made me order the book from my local bookstore. I'm not sure it'll end up as one of my all time favorite novels, but it's definitely up there in my favorite alternate history novels (along with The Man in the High Castle and Years of Rice and Salt, both mentioned in the review).

It takes me a while to get a feel for the taste and judgment of a reviewer. I generally need to read a critic for a few months before I start understanding which recommendations are useful to me, and which aren't (or, indeed, if I'll like a book that she doesn't). It's important for me that there exist forums for critics to build up a body of work. That's why Amazon reviews are generally useless for me, because there's no organic way of building a relationship with any particular reviewer. Generally when I see a review that I find interesting, said reviewer doesn't have many other reviews.
posted by Kattullus at 9:57 AM on September 22, 2012

Book reviews as a published artifact may be dead

Not so. It's true there are now other alternatives such as online reviews, but published book reviewing is alive and thriving. There is a fracturing of choices mirroring the fracturing of where and how to read books. I personally subscribe to the New York Review of Books, NYT Book Review and Bookforum (these are paper artifacts delivered by a postman from once a week to once a quarter). I see them as more than book reviews, they are cultural discussions at a level one doesn't normally see in journalism, since each review is summarizing years of writing/research by the author of the book, so there is a lot of depth and ideas.
posted by stbalbach at 11:07 AM on September 22, 2012

Anyway, critical reviewing is alive and well if you follow the right reviewers.

Yeah, times a kabillion; I couldn't agree more. A bigger challenge for me is restricting myself to just a few reviewers/review places.

I also find the idea that there's an epidemic of niceness in online book culture kinda... weird. Maybe in some small areas, perhaps, but not in the greater wild.

Reviews and criticism have also held an uneasy relationship with publishing and authors, I think; the internet has magnified this, but I truly don't feel the tensions are new or unique. I read tonnes of great criticism.

It’s strange to think that an account of what’s inside a book would be a good way to sell it.

Ugh, that's my least favourite type of review. If I wanted to know the whole plot of the frigging book, I'll just read it. I don't want to know any more than what you might find on the back cover - or in cases where the back cover is a total shit sneaky summary of the novel - or what you would find in the first 30-40 pages.
posted by smoke at 4:26 PM on September 22, 2012

I really appreciate this as an aggregate of the "fate of the book review in the digital age" discussion. Haven't had time to read most of these fully, or ponder, yet, enough to contribute to the discussion overall. or even know what I think.

One more to add
The Guardian's take on "Why book bloggers are critical to literary criticism.
posted by SaharaRose at 7:31 AM on September 27, 2012

Why Does Everybody Love It But Me? - An Interview with Daniel Mendelsohn
posted by the man of twists and turns at 1:44 AM on October 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

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