Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America
by Gail Pool
University of Missouri Press
Inside Book Reviewing
This article first appeared in Boston Review in 1987 and was reprinted in Best of Library Literature for that year. A follow-up article, called “Critics Unmasked,” appeared in Boston Review in 1988.
In a terse letter to the New York Times Book Review last winter, the poet Hayden Carruth complained about the negative review that the Times had given The Selected Poems of James Laughlin, founder of the venerable New Directions Publishing Corporation. Calling the review “a disgrace to us all,” Carruth said that reviewer and book had been mismatched, that the reviewer had not understood the poems, and that this was especially unfortunate for a poet’s final collection. Arriving at the heart of his objection, he concluded: “When the poet is someone who has given as much to writing in this country as Mr. Laughlin has, it seems even more distressing, though I know this is an extraliterary consideration. But I’m sure it will be prominent in the thoughts of most of your readers.”
It did seem sad and somehow unjust that Laughlin, who had sponsored many of our finest poets, should have his own work panned. Yet the review was persuasive. Should the reviewer have toned down his judgment out of kindness or deference to the author? Should he have obscured his critical points to avoid attack? Would such treatment have been more “fair”? Or did responsibility lie with the editor: should he have sought out a reviewer more sympathetic to the poems? As Carruth implied, a different “match” might have yielded a more favorable reading. But is it any fairer to seek out a favorable judgment than a hostile one?
During ten years as an editor and reviewer for periodicals as disparate as The Christian Science Monitor, Wilson Library Bulletin, and The Nation, I have become increasingly aware of the moral complexities of the field. In deciding which books to review, who should review them, and how they should be treated editors and reviewers face choices that make unfairness hard to avoid. Yet surprisingly for a field so given to scrutiny, these ethical dilemmas have seldom been addressed. Indeed, a National Book Critics Circle “Ethics Questionnaire,” distributed to members this spring, is one of the few acknowledgements that a problem exists or that moral failures occur.
The extent of the problem was brought home last year by A Mother’s Work, a book that received wide attention because of its controversial subject. Written by Deborah Fallows, a Radcliffe graduate with a Ph.D. in linguistics, the book explains her decision to leave an administrative position and stay home with her two sons. It also describes conditions in some daycare centers she visited in the following years, discusses some problems of daycare, and makes some suggestions for improving it.
The book first came to my attention when a writer asked to review it for my column. From the book’s dust jacket, it seemed that Fallows felt a mother’s work lay in the home, but I didn’t take the time to confirm this impression by reading the book before mailing it off to the reviewer. To my surprise, her review praised Fallows for moving “beyond the facile arguments for or against women working outside the home.” The dust jacket, I assumed, had been misleading. Some weeks later, however, I found the book reviewed in The New York Times Book Review: “I won’t keep you in suspense,” the reviewer began. “According to A Mother’s Work, a mother’s work is to stay home and raise her children.” Clearly, both reviews could not be correct.
In the following weeks, I saw other reviews that gave contradictory impressions about the book. The case began to intrigue me and eventually I asked the publisher for all reviews the book had received. Comparing them proved a fascinating exercise: not only did they disagree in their evaluations of the book, they differed in their assessment of its nature and basic message:
“She by no means urges that all moms stay home with their kids all day,” said one reviewer. But another asserted that Fallows was maintaining that “if it is at all possible mothers should stay home and raise their children.” Some reviewers characterized Fallows’s observations of daycare centers as “objective research”; others (though they liked the book) described it as personal and “biased.”
Some reviewers thought her research was thorough; others considered it so significantly limited that, broadly speaking, it wasn’t valid. Some reviewers called the book “nonjudgmental”; others called Fallows “preachy” and said she felt everyone should make the same decision she had. Some reviewers gave the impression that the book contributed new information to an issue; others claimed it was a book that only articulated a position.
A lack of time may have led some reviewers to give the book a careless reading. A lack of space prevented almost all reviewers from developing an argument for or against the book’s position: some merely stated that the book was “important,” without demonstrating why; others gave a limited and somewhat distorted picture of its flaws.
But the main problem was that writers reviewed the issue of childcare rather than the book. Most reviewers were involved in the issue: almost all identified themselves as mothers. Some admitted they were measuring Fallows’s ideas against their own experience; some even appeared to be working out their own guilt—or self-satisfaction—within the reviews. While the sensitive nature of daycare brought out a partisan emotionalism in some reviewers, it made others so cautious they handled the book with kid gloves. In the end, few reviewers seemed able to give the book a thorough, fair assessment.
Whether inspired by carelessness or bias, the discrepancies in these reviews point to an ethical failure in handling the problems of book reviewing. Although A Mother’s Work may not be typical—some books fare worse than others in the review media, and controversial books are hard to review—the problems the book posed were not unique. Nor were the solutions. Too often the book review industry fails to deal with the ethical problems involved in selecting books, matching them with reviewers and writing about them.
Of the thousands of books published each year, most editors can give attention to only a few. In choosing, some decisions are easy since much of what is published is recognizably trash, and dismissable. But in sorting through the rest, editors have many guidelines in common: the name of the author, the quality of the publishing house, the “relevance” of the topic, to name a few.
Most of the books that will end up discussed in newspapers and magazines are the lead books of major trade publishers. These are the books readers may expect to see reviewed—because they will have seen them advertised, because they are familiar with the authors. These are the books reviewers are most eager to be assigned—because they think they will be interesting or important. And these are often the best books that the editors of periodicals have on hand to review—because major publishers, unlike many university or smaller presses, send out hundreds of unsolicited advance copies.
One obvious result of these selection practices is that the same books are reviewed everywhere, leaving less space for books by lesser known authors, from smaller presses, or devoted to less topical subjects. Since the latest novel of Updike, however mediocre, “must” be reviewed, the first-rate fiction of Rachel Ingalls may have to be neglected.
A second, more subtle, effect is that the disproportionate space given to books by famous authors or on controversial topics lends them an importance they don’t necessarily possess. Even a negative review requires that the reviewer take a book seriously; a quantity of reviews makes it seem that this is a book we need to respond to. If a modest book like A Mother’s Work is selected because of its topic, it is logical that reviewers end up focusing on the topic, and the book comes to seem important, when only its subject is.
If editors’ methods of selecting books for review tend to yield an inaccurate picture of what books are being published and their relative value, the way they match books with reviewers distorts the picture further. It is unlikely that many editors deliberately seek an unfair review, but they often turn to biased reviewers, with much the same effect.
For one thing, editors feel obliged to produce a lively book page, and they want lively writing. As George Orwell observed in his essay, “In Defence of the Novel,” most books will fail to arouse in the reviewer “even a spark of interest,” and “the only truthful review he could write would be, `This book inspires in me no thoughts whatever.’” A biased writer is at least an interested writer who is likely to produce an interesting review.
Editors also want informed reviews. In specialized areas, whether politics or education, editors may turn to experts. They are likely to be supporters or opponents of authors’ positions, they may well have work to protect, and they will probably come up with reviews that are biased but intelligent. The alternative is a general reviewer who is bright, who writes well, who has no axes to grind, and who may come up with a review that seems fair but is naďve.
Third, editors often want reviews that reflect their own biases. There are authors that editors think are outstanding, issues they feel strongly about. Book review editors, after all, are as involved with books as authors and reviewers; naturally they will use their book pages to get their own values across.
From an editor’s point of view, these choices are understandable. Indeed, editors may feel they have sought out a definite interest or taste, rather than a bias, and that it is the reviewer’s responsibility to treat the book fairly. But if the choices are understandable, they often backfire, producing unfair reviews. Harold Bloom’s scorn for Thomas Wolfe as a writer was not intellectually irrelevant to his New York Times February 8, 1987 review of David Herbert Donald’s critical biography of Wolfe; but the bias came so solidly between reviewer and book that it distorted the review. The choice of mothers to review A Mother’s Work made sense in terms of interest and expertise, but most had too much invested in the issue to evaluate the book with detachment. And editors who select a reviewer who shares their views on an author or issue often find it difficult to leave the reviewer alone. Most writers can cite instances of editors encouraging a negative or positive review, and even changing their copy. The boundaries where an editor’s influence ends can grow faint.
In any case, editors can at best create the opportunity for fair reviews; the rest is up to the writers. Given the number of pitfalls along the path, a reviewer is almost certain to land in one, unless vigilant. As the poet and reviewer L. E. Sissman observed in “Reviewer’s Dues,” his essay on the ethics of reviewing, “…the sins and temptations of reviewers are legion.”
In large part, a reviewer’s problems derive from conflicting obligations. When I first began reviewing I imagined I would be alone with a book and my own taste and judgment. But no reviewer is alone with a book. Authors, readers, and editors all have some interest in the review and their claims are often at odds with the reviewer’s. The reviewer wants to be lucid, witty, right. The author might prefer a favorable review to an honest one. Readers want something that is interesting to read and tells them if the book is worth buying. The book section’s editor wants a review that is lively, indicates the book is important (which justifies the space given to it in the periodical), and meets the specified deadline and word length.
In serving one audience, reviewers are often unfair to another. Out of kindness to the author, they may be so cautious that readers cannot tell if the book is being panned or praised. To please the editor, they may make the book out as more important and interesting than it is: readers go out to buy a “remarkable piece of work” and come home with a disappointingly ordinary book. To entertain readers, and perhaps themselves, reviewers may be witty at the author’s expense. As a reader, I thoroughly enjoyed a review by Stephen Dobyns in which, referring to the many murders in the book, he concluded: “But these are the small deaths. The deaths that bother me most are those of the trees that were cut down to make this book.” As the author, I think I would have wept.
In serving their own values and taste, reviewers often fail to observe where biases distort their reviews. Recently, a writer sent me a review of some short stories. The review began: “The women in these stories are passive.” I was astounded. When I had read—and liked—the stories, passive women had not struck me as a significant aspect of the fiction. Yet for the reviewer, this was the overriding factor; for her, a story about a passive woman could not be a good story. Clearly this was deeply felt, an honest point of view; but was it fair?
The two main causes of unfair reviewing are a lack of time and a lack of space. It is easy to see these as mechanical difficulties rather than ethical difficulties; but both impose choices that have ethical consequences. The first of these is inaccuracy. Reviews are filled with inaccuracies; indeed, it can be unnerving to read reviews of books one has actually read. In a recent New York Times Book Review roundup of some travel books with which I was familiar, I found the reviewer had transformed one male author into a woman and attributed another author’s comment to the wrong person. In a rush, and reviewers are often in a rush to meet deadlines, not only can confusions like this occur but important aspects of a book may be missed. Moreover, writers rarely have time to do the background reading they should to evaluate fairly the book under review (especially for a $200 fee and with the press of other work).
Equally bad is the problem of space. In 700 words certain criticisms cannot really be defended, and reviewers must decide whether to raise them and leave them unexplained, or omit them altogether. Either way, without great care, the argument may be inadequate or distorted. And as the reviews of A Mothers Work made plain, reviewers are often not careful enough.
There is a misconception that book reviewing is easy. In fact, it is hard to review books fairly. Indeed, given the scope of the difficulties, perhaps it is not surprising that reviews should often fail. But given the scope of the failures, it is surprising how little analysis has been given to where reviewing fails, and why—and whether the field can be improved.
My impression is that reviewers and editors try to be fair; but their concept of unfairness is limited. They seem to reserve the term for negative reviews, in particular those that seem unjustly critical of a book, vicious, or mocking of its author. This kind of unfairness is scrupulously avoided. Indeed, as Anatole Broyard points out in his essay, “Fashions in Reviewing,” critics tend to be excessively gentle nowadays. It is hard to imagine finding in today’s reviews anything to compare with the nastiness of angrier eras, such as Waugh’s remark on Auden, “His work is awkward and dull, but it is no fault of his that he has become a public bore”; or such epithets as “slopbucket” and “rotten garbage of licentious thoughts” which Broyard reminds us were hurled at Leaves of Grass.
But there is, after all, a great variety of ways for reviews to be unfair, and it seems to me we are offhand about many. We are reluctant to call books “terrible” when they may be just ordinarily bad, but we are comfortable calling them “excellent” or “remarkable” when we know they are merely “good.” We will not call an author’s ideas garbage, but we are willing to ignore them and proceed to promote our own.
In “Reviewer’s Dues,” L.E. Sissman set forth his “moral imperatives” of reviewing, and I imagine many reviewers would be as surprised as I was at their scope. Alongside the injunctions we would expect, such as “Never review the work of a friend” or “Never review the work of an enemy,” are less obvious injunctions such as “Never review a book in a field you don’t know or care about,” “Never read the jacket copy or the publisher’s handout before reading and reviewing a book,” “Never compete with your subject,” “Never neglect new writers,” and “Never fail to take chances in judgment.” I expect most reviewers would accede to these injunctions; but I think we do not tend to see them as moral, or their violation as unethical. It seems to me we need to acknowledge more fully the moral nature of the field—to view each book and each review as a moral challenge—if we hope to resist the many temptations of reviewing and to avoid its sins.