Book Reviewing: Then and Now

Northeast MLA Roundtable

 

When I first began reviewing books some thirty years ago, I entered a system that had been in place for a very long time—really, since the start of reviewing itself.  Reviewing began in America at the end of the 18th century and it had changed so little over time that the complaints about the field you would hear in 1980 were precisely—uncannily!—the same as the complaints made back in 1880. “Puff, puff, puff!”  "Bland and pointless!”  And the favorite complaint through the decades:   “You can’t tell the reviews from the advertising!”

This traditional system of reviewing emerged to deal with the increasing publication of new books—both to let readers know what new titles had been published and to evaluate them.  Newspapers—though in some ways a curious home for literary matters—published criticism early on, carrying the largest number of reviews for general readers.  A wide range of popular and serious magazines, literary quarterlies, and academic journals ran reviews for particular audiences.  And extremely important—although most readers didn’t read them and may not have heard of them—trade journals, such as Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, or Choice published thousands of brief, pre-publication reviews.  These would be read by booksellers, book review editors elsewhere, and most crucially, librarians, who depend on reviews and are the main buyers for most serious and academic books.

Although publishers often enjoyed disparaging reviews, claiming they were rubbish and didn’t sell books, they were never altogether sure they didn’t need them for publicity, and they actually spent a fair amount of time seeking them out.  They would send catalogs, publishers’ representatives, and advance reading copies to persuade review editors—especially at prestigious publications—to select their books for review.

Exactly how review editors in this traditional process have made their selection is a complex--and somewhat discouraging—Issue, but essentially they would consider such factors as a book’s author, its publisher, its subject, and its hype, and make their choices.  They would then match them up with reviewers they thought would be suitable and accept, reject, or edit the final review. 

Obviously in this system, readers are most aware of the reviewer—who gets the byline.  But in fact, it’s the review editor behind the scenes who plays the most central and powerful role.

 

Now there have always been problems with this process and complaints about the reviews it produced.

For one thing, as the number of published books increased, a smaller and smaller percentage could receive reviews. 

The basis of selection was not transparent to readers and it was questionable.  Readers might assume they were reading about the “best” or “most significant” books.  But since review editors were unable to read so many books, they couldn’t really choose on the basis of quality.

In the general press, commercial elements were clearly at work.  Although it wouldn’t be right to say that reviews were bought, the books of publishers who advertised have always been reviewed far more often than those of small or university presses that didn’t advertise.

It was a very New York-centric world.  Publishers, located mainly in New York, were mostly eager to get their books reviewed in New York publications, and made little effort to get them into the hands of regional or small press publications.

The match-ups between reviewers and books were often dubious.  Editors in the general press usually had no guidelines for screening out personal bias or checking for competence, while academic editors too often ignored potential conflicts of interest—choosing colleagues, mentors, or rivals.

Reviewers were abominably paid, or not paid at all.  Sometimes—an ultimate insult—editors would neglect to even give reviewers a finished copy of the book they’d reviewed.

 

Although critics in the field grappled with and groaned about these issues in dozens of essays through the years—and undoubtedly inspired some better reviewing—this  system remained fairly intact until the late 1990s when a combination of economic, cultural, and technological forces combined to upset the field.

First, newspapers ran into financial trouble.  Among other cutbacks they began to trim or shut down their book pages, which had never been high in the news hierarchy, which no longer brought in ad revenues, and which news editors believed were not widely read.  Many newspapers folded altogether.  Magazines too cut back on reviews. Even the trade magazines ran into trouble: Kirkus recently nearly folded.  Overall, the decade saw a substantial loss in print reviews used not only by individuals but also by public and academic librarians.

Second, this decade saw the rise of Amazon and the philosophy that everyone is a reviewer.  Amidst the general challenge to cultural authority, the book reviewer is especially vulnerable.  After all, reviewers are uncredentialed.  Some part of reviewing inevitably comes down to individual taste.  Readers came to question what gives reviewers the right to judge books and why critics’ opinions should be worth more than their own.

And third, the web suddenly expanded immensely, providing free access to a medium in which everyone could have their own page and their own say, about anything, from their dogs to their love lives.  It turned out—surprisingly in view of the supposed lack of interest in reading—that a great many people wanted to talk about books, and literary blogs flourished, written by ordinary readers, authors, critics, or former critics who had lost their jobs.

Often I’ve heard blogs and Amazon reviewing referred to as the rise of amateur reviewers, but this isn’t really accurate.  We’ve always had amateur reviewers: publications have depended on teachers, librarians, novelists to review, often for no pay.  Academics who review are not professional reviewers.  The big change here has been the rise of self-published reviewers, and the removal of the editor and the backing of a publication from the traditional reviewing process.

Responses to these changes have tended to fall into two main camps. One group has said good riddance to the traditional system, which never worked very well anyway. 

The other group has seen The Invasion of the Barbarians and mourned the End of Literary Culture.  This has always been a field of dire lamentation and woe.

 

So where is reviewing headed?  It seems to me that right now we're at a such a point of transition, it’s hard to make predictions.  We certainly have a tremendous amount of book commentary and reviews on the web, ranging from book chat to serious criticism and sites dedicated to reviewing scholarly books.  These days publishers can feel unsure where to send their books for review.  Some send review copies of books to Amazon reviewers.  In some ways, it feels like a whole new world.  But actually I’m not sure that we’re witnessing the end of traditional reviewing.

We still have traditional reviews in print, of course, whether in The New York Times Book Review, the American Historical Review, or BookForum.  Some publications—like BookForum—run reviews both in print and online.  But in any case just because reviews are online doesn’t mean they aren’t traditional.

BookSlut, for instance, a popular book site, has many features, including a blog.  But its review segment seems to operate pretty much in the traditional pattern.  It has an editor.  It only accepts books submitted by publishers.  It uses a number of reviewers. Similarly, the Barnes and Noble Review, the Internet Review of Books, and the New Republic online review which was recently started all have editors.  It's hard to see that these reviews are untraditional.

My guess—and obviously it’s just a guess—is that as things shake out, we’re likely to see an increasing number of these online magazine sites publishing reviews.  I think many literary blogs will continue to thrive, which is all to the good.  But I believe that many readers and librarians want not only critiques of books but also some overview of what is being published—and as a system, individual blogs don’t seem to me an efficient way to help readers deal with the thousands of new books published each year. 

Facing these numbers of published books, even book sections are limited.  But where a book section, in print or online, using many reviewers can offer reviews of, say, thirty new books at a time, the individual blogger working alone—however good he may be as a critic—is more limited.  Readers who want to read about 30 new books at one sitting will have to visit some 30 web sites.  Moreover, where a book section under an editor has at least the potential of offering a coherent view of significant new books, 30 bloggers choosing books for different reasons can leave readers with a sense of dispersed, random selection.

It seems to me possible that with the economies offered by the web--which eliminates the costs of paper, print, and distribution--an online review publication might support itself on subscriptions and perhaps even pay reviewers.  One of the losses of newspaper reviews has been reviewer fees which, however low, were higher than web fees, which have mainly been zero.  

But to command a subscription price for reviews, which used to come apparently free in our newspapers and have since come free on the web, people would have to feel they need these reviews, and the reviews would have to be good.

Will our online reviewing solve the problems that have plagued our print reviewing and were never resolved?  Will editors make the selection process more transparent and the selection itself more meaningful?  Will there be more competent matchups between reviewers and books, less overheated praise?  Can we develop ways, both in academic and nonacademic reviewing, to be intelligently critical without being venomous or trying to score points?

I hear little these days about the quality of reviewing.  With the field in turmoil, people have focused more on changes and losses than on the quality of our criticism.  But it seems to me that this turmoil makes this an excellent time to rethink reviewing, and try to come up with better ways of selecting and discussing books than the ones that undermined reviewing in the past.  It would be sad if we end up with a system of reviewing that not only resembles the traditional system but has so taken on its flaws that even the complaints about it sound precisely like those heard two hundred years ago.