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Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America

by Gail Pool

University of Missouri Press, 2007


More than 150,000 books are published annually in the United States.

Which books are reviewed?  Why?  Who reviews them? 

Why do so many books receive such excessive praise?


A book that explains reviewing: how it works, why it so often fails.



Faint Praise

The Plight of Book Reviewing in America

Reviews (click here for links to full reviews)


Faint Praise should be considered mandatory reading for anyone aspiring to become a book reviewer, and is especially valuable reading for authors, publishers, academicians, and the general reading public.”—Midwest Book Review


“Everything you need to know about book reviewing can be found in Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America.  It is a thoughtful and entertaining examination of the culture of book reviewing.”—Tony Miksanek, Letters, “The Book Room,” Chicago Sun-Times.


Pool’s book is timely.  It is also well-conceived and well-researched.  In fact, it is difficult to imagine a more thoughtful, informative book about the work I’ve done for nearly 40 years.”—Steve Weinberg, Boston Globe.


“Everyone in the field will applaud Pool’s passionate insistence on the importance to literary culture of the serious, informed critique, which is increasingly endangered and in need of such vigorous support.”--Publishers Weekly


“In the future, freshly appointed book editors at our daily newspapers should be handed a copy of Gail Pool’s Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America.  They could use it: It is a very commonsensical, clear-headed and knowledgeable analysis of the current state of professional book reviewing.”—Jerome Weeks,, Critical Mass, National Book Critics Circle


Faint Praise is a thorough look at the current state of book reviewing in America…The examples are entertaining—and revealing…Our assessment: A-: solid overview and discussion.”—The Complete Review


“Book reviewing faces its own “silent spring,” Gail Pool warns in her new book, flashing a distress signal over the endemic rot and habitat destruction laying waste to the field of letters, and doing her darnedest to make people care.”—James Wolcott, New Republic


“[Readers]…will quite likely never read reviews the same way in the future as they have in the past.”—Steve Weinberg, Hartford Courant


“…Everyone who blogs about books would be well-served by reading this one book.”—My Individual Take (On the Subject)


“If you ‘re a book reviewer (aspiring or established), or simply want to understand book reviewing better, there’s no doubt: You must read Gail Pool’s Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America.  Period.”—Erika Dreifus, Practicing Writing


“Faint Praise puts book reviews in context better than anything else I’ve read.”—Susan Thomsen, Chicken Spaghetti (Literary Blog)


“Highly recommended.”—C. M. Mayo, Madam Mayo (Writing Blog)


“Pool’s book is a clarion call for a return to a vigorous kind of criticism, based on sound, logical thinking and the precise use of language.”—Steven W. Beattie, That Shakespearian Rag


“If you care about the fate of book reviews…Faint Praise…is a book you should care about.”—Michael Merschel, book review editor, Dallas Morning News


“Veteran reviewer Gail Pool comes at the problem of the declining and frequently abysmal quality of book reviews in America…from a down-to-earth, nitty-gritty, practical perspective, focusing on the mechanics of editorial decision making and reviewers’ choices, and eschewing for the most part high-flying ruminations on ethical and philosophical abstractions, to yield a most usable and rewarding guide to the book review business.”—Anis Shivani, American Book Review, November/December 2008.


Pool’s analysis is as wide-ranging as it is hard-hitting.  Faint Praise is a brave polemic, written out of a profound love of literature, evident on every page.”—Megan Marshall, Radcliffe Quarterly


“[Pool] offers a thoughtful and thought-provoking guide to the artistry and scholarship, not to mention the agony and ecstasy that is part of good book reviewing…Pool’s crisp, intelligent, and witty style moves the reader from the lonely and unrewarding depths to the lofty heights of book reviewing.  Lawrence Rubin, Journal of Popular Culture



Faint Praise

The Plight of Book Reviewing in America

by Gail Pool

How many competent critics have we in America?  Not many.  The critical judgment furnishes the most notable jargon of the literary world.  There is not a work of art worth noticing at all that does not use up, in its critical characterization, all the adjectives of praise and dispraise…It is probable that incompetence, flippancy, arrogance, partisanship, ill-nature, and the pertinacious desire to attract attention will go on with their indecent work until criticism, which has now sunk to public contempt, will fall to still dirtier depths beneath it.  Scribner’s Monthly, IX, 626, March 1875.

In America, now…a genius may indeed go to his grave unread, but he will hardly have gone to it unpraised.  Sweet, bland commendations fall everywhere upon the scene; a universal, if somewhat lobotomized, accommodation reigns.  A book is born into a puddle of treacle; the brine of hostile criticism is only a memory.  Everyone is found to have ‘filled a need,’ and is to be 'thanked' for something and to be excused for ‘minor faults in an otherwise excellent work.’  ‘A thoroughly mature artist’ appears many times a week and often daily; many are the bringers of those ‘messages the Free World will ignore at its peril.  Elizabeth Hardwick, “The Decline of Book Reviewing,” Harper’s Magazine, October 1959.

The earliest book reviews in America appeared at the end of the eighteenth century.  They have been influencing--and frustrating--people ever since.  For two centuries, reviews have set our literary agenda, helping to determine not only what we read but also what we think about what we read.  And for two centuries, critics-of-the-critics, often reviewers themselves, have complained that reviews are profligate in their praise, hostile in their criticism, cravenly noncommittal, biased, inaccurate, or dull.  By now, so many essays have been written lamenting the sorry state of American reviewing that they comprise a minor genre.  Yet no book has explored in depth the reasons for this perennial failure or the question of how reviewing might improve.

These are the issues I address in Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America, a critique of American reviewing published by the University of Missouri Press.  More than 150,000 books are published annually in the United States, and the number seems to be rising.  At the same time, newspapers are cutting back their book pages, and the number of book reviews is falling.  More than ever, readers need guidance to inform them about what significant books have been published and help them decide which ones they want to read.  As a longtime book reviewer, review editor, and columnist, I’m hardly a dispassionate observer, but I believe this guidance is best provided by the broad, knowledgeable, disinterested commentary that only good reviewing can offer.  If our critical enterprise works so badly that it often fails to work at all, we need to understand why.

In eight chapters Faint Praise examines all aspects of the unruly world of reviewing.  It discusses how editors choose a handful of books for review from the vast number that are published and how they assign them to suitable—or unsuitable—reviewers.  It analyzes the roles played by editors, publishers, authors and readers, and appraises the lot of the reviewer, with his measure of prestige, his dose of scorn, and his lowly pay.  It explores the context of reviewing, the traditions that have evolved in a culture with little interest in literature, much antipathy to criticism, and a weakness for praise.  It contrasts reviewing with alternative book coverage, from Amazon to Oprah, arguing that these alternatives, whatever their virtues, can’t substitute for good traditional reviewing, whether in print or online.  And finally it suggests how our traditional methods of reviewing could be revised.  Throughout, the book weighs the inherent difficulties of reviewing that make certain shortcomings inevitable against the unacceptable practices that undermine the very reasons we read--and need--reviews.

I have written Faint Praise for a general audience of readers.   Although the book has special relevance for people in the book field,  its subject and critical viewpoint have wider appeal as well.  After all, book reviews affect all readers—even those who don’t read reviews.  In serious fiction and nonfiction, the books that are reviewed are the ones we know about.  Book clubs use reviews in making their choices.  Book award committees use them in making their choices as well.  And yet for most readers, reviewing remains something of a mystery.  Faint Praise demystifies reviewing, offering insight into this branch of the media, with its power to award prestige to authors, give prominence to topics, help shape opinion and determine taste.

Table of Contents
Introduction: The Reviewer’s Lament
Unnatural Selection
Vermin, Dogs, and Woodpeckers
The Match
Getting It Right
Private Opinions, Public Forums
Are Book Reviews Necessary?
Improving the Trade


Reviews and Commentary

Complete Review:

Boston Globe:

Critical Mass, Jerome Weeks,  National Book Critics Circle:

Texas Pages, Michael Merschel, Dallas Morning News:

         That Shakesperian Rag, Steven Beattie:

Right Reading, Tom Christensen:

Publishers Weekly:

New Republic, James Wolcott:

The Hartford Courant, Steve Weinberg:

                             The Arts Fuse, Bill Marx:  

                             (There is also a podcast interview on this web site:

                             Chicken Spaghetti:

Midwest Book Review:  This review is reprinted on the Amazon page for Faint Praise: scroll down to “Reader Reviews”: ( 

American Book Review, Anis Shivani: November/December 2008.  (Available only in print.)

Kirkus Reviews:  June 1, 2007.  (Available only in print or by subscription.)

My Individual Take (On the Subject):

Practicing Writing, Erika Dreifus:

Rain Taxi:

My Sweet Home Alameda (in Spanish): 

NRC Handelsblad, Elsbeth Etty (in Dutch):

One Minute Book Reviews, Janice Harayda:

Walt Bodine Show, NPR, Kansas City:

Radcliffe Quarterly, Megan Marshall, Winter 2008:

Inside Higher Ed, Scott McLemee, July 28, 2008:

Journal of Popular Culture, Lawrence Rubin: August 2008.  (Available only in print.)

Boekman 78, Lisa Kuitert, Spring 2009.  (In Dutch; available only in print.)

The Journal of Documentation, Karl Wolf, 2009.    (Available only in print, but a copy can be found at:


The Twenty Best Books for Language Lovers:


** Interviews available online: The Arts Fuse (Bill Marx), The Marketplace of Ideas (Colin Marshall), The Book Show    (Ramona Koval).  An interview with Mayra Calvani is posted at:

                              For information about Faint Praise, please contact:

                             Gail Pool

                             Christina Ward: The Ward and Balkin Agency  

                             University of Missouri Press: