Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America
by Gail Pool
University of Missouri Press
Eliminate the Negative?
This essay, published in the September 1994 issue of the Women’s Review of Books, was originally presented at a panel on “Censorship and Self-Censorship” at a reviewing conference sponsored by the Women’s Review.
Recently—in fact, as I was brooding on censorship for this panel—an incident occurred that seemed to me uncomfortably relevant to the topic. The episode involved one of my book columns, a “first fiction” review I write for The Cleveland Plain Dealer that also runs in The San Diego Union and The Houston Post. The Post had sent tear sheets of my latest column, and as I glanced down the page I noticed the piece had been trimmed. I had reviewed three books, and from my discussion of one, someone had neatly removed part of a paragraph. In those lines had been my total criticism of the book.
I was furious. I was mortified. To start with I had been too generous with this novel. It was, after all, a first novel and it was well written. But I had been careful to note—in those missing lines—that the book had serious limitations, that the events described weren’t credible. Now, with only praise remaining, it looked as though I simply adored this book. A fellow-reviewer once remarked that much as we complain that newspapers—and our reviews—are ephemeral, there are times we can be grateful that they are. This was definitely one of those times. I hoped all copies of that Post had long since been shredded.
Vanity aside, though, I reflected more broadly on what had happened. The book editor said the copy department had made the cut for space. And I’m sure this was the case. But something similar had happened at this paper before. In a previous column, I had praised a book but called it formulaic—not a trivial criticism; in print, the word “formulaic” had disappeared. In that same column, my severe criticism of another book had been pruned as well. Then too, when I complained, I was told the cuts were made for space, and I had groaned at the appalling editing.
This time, however, I was struck by the pattern. When you cut for space, after all, there is a choice of what to cut. No one had touched my plot summary. No one had deleted my praise. Clearly someone at the paper saw criticism as the most dispensable part of a book review; he or she believed that praise has more validity, or perhaps more value, than blame.
That person is not alone. The main problem in fiction reviewing today is the tendency to censor out negative opinions. One editor I work with prefers that I review only books I like because, she says, a negative review is a waste of space. A literary agent I know has said, “But you have to admit a positive review is more useful than one that is negative.” And at last year’s meeting of the National Book Critics Circle, Nan Talese, an editor at Doubleday, complained—amazingly—that too many reviews are negative. I shudder to imagine what she might like. As it is, our fiction reviews not only call a remarkable number of books “extraordinary” or “astonishing,” they also give so many others substantial praise that you would think this was a truly superior age for fiction. Yet the reviewers, review editors and readers I know don’t believe it is.
Why this need to make books out to be better than they are? Critics have blamed book editors for catering to commercialism. They have blamed reviewers for being dishonest and spineless. Yet the book editors I work with don’t especially cater to commercialism. Most of the reviewers I know do try to be honest, and if we are spineless, what precisely are we afraid of? I don’t think these broad accusations get to the heart of the matter, the more complex factors that encourage honest reviewers to turn out dishonest reviews.
Nothing has made me more aware of these factors, of the process of subduing negative opinions, than my “first fiction” column. After all, it is a tenet of reviewing that you will be gentle with new writers and that, as the novelist Thomas Fleming said in a New York Times Book Review article, “The War Between Writers and Reviewers,” everyone in the field agrees you “never, never trash a first novelist.”
When I first began this column in 1989, I decided I would do only favorable reviews. Not that I would lie: I would only review books I liked. I didn’t want to be the reviewer who crushed some young talent with my honesty. And the policy seemed to make more sense: it seemed pointless to introduce a new writer and say, “Now you don’t know this writer, and believe me you don’t want to know her.”
I thought this policy could work because I selected my own books to review. I planned to find three each month that revolved around a theme, and I would aim for a balance—between male and female authors, between innovative and conventional fiction, among different cultural voices and different publishers. My hopes, obviously, were high.
But I had no idea when I formulated this plan how very bad the majority of books I saw would be. I received dozens and out of those dozens I found it hard to find three to be enthusiastic about, let alone three I liked that were also on the same theme and represented any sort of balance. Many, of course, showed talent. They were, as reviewers like to say of first novels, “promising.” But even the good books were, as reviewers also like to say, “flawed.” These were, after all, first works.
I faced a dilemma. If I failed to mention or downplayed those flaws, I would undoubtedly encourage the writer (and please the publisher), but what about the poor reader who went out and bought the book? Did readers understand that in many cases I only meant this writer had talent, I didn’t mean that the novel really succeeded? I didn’t mean they should actually read it? And what about my critical reputation? Did other critics and editors understand that really I didn’t like everything, that actually I had some taste? Did everyone understand that my judgments here were relative? Increasingly I began to wonder whether these judgments should be relative. I wondered whether other reviewers’ assessments of first novels were relative. I felt I was being dishonest. I was.
In time I strengthened my criticism. I remained more generous toward these newcomers than I would have been toward more experienced writers. But I came to understand that if my role was to encourage new authors, it was also to discourage writing and writing trends I judged bad. I might praise the talent of Jeffrey Eugenides in his novel The Virgin Suicides, but I shouldn’t ignore the novel’s infantile attitude toward women. I might acknowledge the skill of Frances Sherwood in Vindication, but I shouldn’t ignore the uneasy mix of fact and fiction that undermined her story of Mary Wollstonecraft. And there were times to break that principle and trash a first novel, as I did in the case of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, a book that was too well-publicized for me to ignore—newspaper readers would want to know about it—but which I couldn’t praise.
This intense experience with first fiction made me extremely aware of the inner struggles fiction reviewers in general face as we confront the issue of negative opinions. For one thing, reviewers don’t write in a vacuum; we write within a cultural climate. Our gentleness toward first novels is only an exaggerated case of a more general attitude. As Anatole Broyard once said in a piece called “Fashions in Reviewing,” these days we tend toward an over-respectfulness toward books, even toward books we dislike. This seems to me linked at least in part to a general attitude in our culture that criticism of any kind is impolite, that it’s in bad taste, that—as the saying goes—if you have nothing good to say, you shouldn’t say anything at all.
When reviewers today make a criticism—if we say, for instance, “The dialogue in this novel is weak”—we are likely to qualify it at once, adding “but the characters are splendid,” as if apologizing for having said anything bad. I think that all of us—readers and critics—are so accustomed to this softness that it’s hard for any reviewer to make plain unequivocal negative statements without sounding overly blunt. We certainly don’t live in an age when we would call a novel, as Broyard tells us one reviewer called Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, “slopbucket.” If I sent a review to The Plain Dealer calling a novel slopbucket, my editor would not only ask for a revision, she would probably suggest I take a rest.
Second, I think reviewers fear being called “unfair,” and we are restrained by a limited concept of fairness. The term seems to be reserved for negative reviews, those that seem unjustly critical of a book. Does anyone ever call a review that has overpraised a book an unfair review? Clearly, by “fair,” we mean fair to the author.
Interestingly, most of us seem to feel a fair review should balance good and bad even if these are not actually balanced in the book. I have found myself bending over backward to find something to praise in a weak book, in order to make my criticism seem credible and show I’m not being meanspirited. Interestingly, too, we seem to feel if we praise a book we needn’t justify our praise, but if we criticize we had better say why. Since it often takes considerable space to explain a novel’s problems, a reviewer who feels mixed about a book may end up just mentioning the praise and omitting the criticism she hasn’t room to explicate, leaving the impression she thought the novel better than in fact she did.
Third, I think reviewers are restrained by our society’s view of us. For all that people want to be reviewers, we are held in very low regard. The issue isn’t only pay—though I doubt there is any work more poorly paid—but also disparagement, the dismissal of reviewing’s importance, the dismissal of it even as real writing. People often ask me if I don’t have any work of my own. Whose work do they think I’m doing?
Broyard himself in his article falls into this way of thinking, speculating that many reviewers are so respectful of novels because they themselves long to be authors and so identify with the writers they are reviewing. I think it more likely that reviewers have so often been accused of longing to be “real” authors—of being failed novelists and criticizing out of spite—that they carefully rein in their criticism.
Many people assume reviewers pull their punches because they fear offending an author who can vengefullv hurt their career. This, of course, is the scourge of academic reviewing. As books editor of the Radcliffe Quarterly, I had trouble finding a reviewer for the powerful literary critic Helen Vendler’s book: when several suitable reviewers in a row turned me down, it seemed clear—though they didn’t say it—that they preferred not to risk giving offense.
This fear is less frequent in fiction-reviewing, but it does occur. It is often said that novelist-reviewers tend to give soft reviews with an eye to their own future work being criticized. And when I was reviewing the stories of Joseph Epstein, I was aware of his power in the literary world. I had also read one of his essays in which he said he recalled the names of all the writers who had given him a bad review. It took some effort to be frank about his stories, which I thought poor. And I couldn’t help feeling suspicious of the rave that appeared in The New York Times Book Review. Even if the reviewer thought the stories good, as I did not, did he really think them as good as that?
Finally, I think fiction reviewers sometimes overpraise because we are afraid that, working as quickly as we must, we’ll miss the mark, we’ll get it wrong. And for reasons that seem fairly obvious, most of us—if we do make a mistake—would rather be the reviewer who found Jane Doe’s mediocre work exhilarating than the benighted soul who found Jane Austen’s novels trite.
I don’t want to leave the impression I think reviewers are entirely responsible for the lack of tough reviews. Editors, publishers, booksellers and readers all play a part. But in the end, the responsibility to be tougher does fall to reviewers. It is we who have to make our way through the maze of expectations and demands, ambitions and fears to arrive at what we honestly want to say and be brave enough to say it.