Book Reviewing: Home   

 

FaintPraise50pct

Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America       

by Gail Pool

University of Missouri Press

Summer 2007

 

www.umsystem.edu/upress/spring2007/pool.htm

www.amazon.com, www.barnesandnoble.com, www.powells.com

 

Quotations About Book Reviewing

 

·       I never read a book before reviewing it; it prejudices a man so.—Sydney Smith, Yale Book of Quotations.

 

·       A good review makes you feel good for seven minutes, and a bad review makes you feel miserable for seven years.—Mary Gordon, New York Times, March 9, 2007.

 

·       Unless a reviewer has the courage to give you unqualified praise, I say ignore the bastard.—John Steinbeck, quoted by J. K. Galbraith in The Affluent Society (1977).

       

·       Receiving a bad review is like being spat on by a complete stranger in Times Square.—Wilfrid Sheed, “The Politics of Reviewing,” 1971.

 

·       A book review is a scene of judgment, with one body in the judge’s chair, the other in the defendant’s.—Wayne Koestenbaum, “Why Bully Literature?” in The Crisis of Criticism, edited by Maurice Berger, 1998.

 

·       Adverse book reviews there have always been, and always should be, lest a tide of good intentions rise to drown us all in worthy sludge.—Clive James, “The Good of a Bad Review,” New York Times, September 7, 2003.

 

·       Whether written by fellow writers or professional reviewers, the all-out assault is what every writer dreads.  I have heard it described in various ways—snide, dismissive, insulting.  Let us call it, for the sake of hyperbole, the ground-zero review.  In it, the writer is often urged to seek another line of work.—Thomas Fleming, “The War Between Writers and Reviewers,” New York Times Book Review,  January 6, 1985.

 

·       Reviewing can never be reduced to a matter of neutral reporting, since a major part of the “news” about any book is how good it is.  Even a summary of its contents, except at the most rudimentary level, is likely to involve judgments and preferences.—John Gross, New York Times Book Review, October 6, 1996.

 

·       Criticism without value judgments is mere cataloguing, a kind of handy list-making which has no possible value for the reader.—Doris Grumbach, “A Review of the Craft of Reviewing,” in Book Reviewing, edited by Sylvia Kaminer, 1998.

 

·       I am strongly disposed to believe that our contemporary writing would benefit by a genuine literary criticism that should deal expertly with ideas and art, not merely tell us whether the reviewer “let out a whoop” for the book or threw it out the window.—Edmund,  “The Critic Who Does Not Exist,” in The Shores of Light: A Literary Chronicle of the Twenties and Thirties.

 

·       I do not tolerate pussy-foot reviews.  It is a common device to let an author down easy when he writes a mediocre book merely by telling the story and avoiding comment.  But this has never won the respect of author, reader or publisher.  All through life we are giving our opinions—on the morning’s coffee, on a new picture, on a sunset.  The basis of our opinion may be emotional or intuitive or due to actual mental reflection.  In no case does it take into account the actual labor involved in producing the object that arouses our comment.  Reviewing cannot be based on pity; it may be considerate, and dignified, but it is not a plea for supporting the author’s family.—Harry Hansen, literary editor of the New York World.

 

·       Praise or blame has but a momentary effect on the man whose love of beauty in the abstract makes him a severe critic of his own works.—John Keats

 

·       Some reviews give pain. This is regrettable, but no author has the right to whine.  He was not obliged to be an author.  He invited publicity, and he must take the publicity that comes along.—E. M. Forster

 

·       An author places himself uncalled before the tribunal of criticism and solicits fame at the hazard of disgrace.—Samuel Johnson

 

·       A person who publishes a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down…If it is a good book nothing can hurt him.  If it is a bad book, nothing can help him.—Edna St. Vincent Millay

 

·       It is long since Mr. Carlyle expressed his opinion that if any poet or other literary creature could really be “killed off by one critique” or many, the sooner he was so despatched the better; a sentiment in which I for one humbly but heartily concur.—Algernon Charles Swinburne, Under the Microscope.

 

·       It is safer to assume that every writer has read every word of every review, and will never forgive you.—John Leonard, Rotten Reviews

 

·       Even more than poets, critics are born, not made.  But they are more scarce than poets.—Henri Peyre, The Failures of Criticism.

 

·       It is unnecessary for a reviewer to air his learning.  Let us hope that he has it.—Harry Hansen, literary editor of the New York World.

 

·       One cannot review a bad book without showing off.—W. H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand

 

·       The really competent critic must be an empiricist.  He must conduct his exploration with whatever means lie within the bounds of his personal limitation.  He must produce his effects with whatever tools will work.  If pills fail, he gets out his saw.  If the saw won’t cut, he seizes a club.—H. L. Mencken.

 

·       Experience has shown that rules laid down for one reviewer do not apply at all to another.  Just when we imagine we have a workable formula, along comes somebody with a review that is unmistakably good and which at the same time violates every clause in the formula.—F.F. Beirne, book page editor of the Baltimore Evening Sun.

 

·       A wise scepticism is the first attribute of a good critic.—James Russell Lowell, “Shakespeare Once More.”

 

·       Remember that of every ten readers of your review nine will not read the book.  Therefore make your article informative enough so that if anyone should ask the nine if they have read the book they will retain enough of the story in their minds to lie about it successfully.  In most novels it should be the rule not to tell the whole plot, for if you tell all you will in many cases lose for the novelist even that possible tenth reader.—Louis Mecker, literary editor of the Kansas City Star.

 

·       When we read the criticism of any past age, we see immediately that the main thing wrong with it is an astonishing amount of what Eliot calls “fools’ approval”; most of the thousands of poets were bad, most of the thousands of critics were bad, and they loved each other.—Randall Jarrell, Letter to The Nation, 1948.

 

·       Interacting with literature is easy.  Anyone can join in, because words (unlike palettes and pianos) lead a double life: we all have a competence.  It is not surprising, therefore, that individual sensitivities come so strongly into play; not surprising, either that the discipline has rolled over for democratization far more readily than, for example, chemistry and Ancient Greek.  In the long term, though, literature will resist levelling and revert to hierarchy.  This isn’t the decision of some snob of a belletrist.  It is the decision of Judge Time, who constantly separates those who last from those who don’t.—Martin Amis, The War Against Cliché.

 

·       The history of criticism begins with the history of art.  When the first artist drew his first horse in red chalk on the walls of his cave, the first critic was at his elbow.  And as the other cave dwellers gathered to see and wonder, he doubtless diverted their attention from the artist and his work to himself by raising the pregnant question, “What is criticism, and what is its function at the present time?”—Robert Morss Lovett, “Criticism Past and Present,” in Backgrounds of Book Reviewing, edited by Herbert S. Mallory, 1931.

 

·       Like any arranged marriage, the pairing of book and reviewer involves matching pedigrees, personalities, and that indefinable attraction that promises a measure of passion on the page.—Paul Baumann, “Confessions of a Book Review Editor,” Columbia Journalism Review, May/June 2001.

 

·       When I became book editor of the Inquirer several years ago, I accepted as gospel what I had heard: that a book editor’s most important responsibility is to determine which books will be reviewed.  That is an important judgment, but it no longer has the highest priority in my own management of book reviews.  It is more important that the book be given to the right reviewer.  There is no particular honor in having a review of a high-profile book just for the record, if the review is misguided and misguiding for having been misassigned.  When a book is reviewed by someone unqualified to judge it, or otherwise an injudicious choice for doing so, there is all-around disservice—to the author, to the publishers, to the readers of the review, and also to the reviewer himself.—Larry Swindell, “The Function of a Book Editor,” in Book Reviewing, ed. Sylvia Kamerman.

 

·       Reviewing work is too badly paid for any reasonable being to think of making it either an art or a business.—Idler, 1894.

 

·       The reviewing of novels is the white man’s grave of journalism; it corresponds, in letters, to building bridges in some impossible tropical climate.  The work is grueling, unhealthy, and ill-paid, and for each scant clearing made wearily among the springing vegetation the jungle overnight encroaches twice as far.—Cyril Connolly, “Ninety Years of Novel Reviewing.”

 

·       …The prolonged, indiscriminate reviewing of books is a quite exceptionally thankless, irritating and exhausting job.  It not only involves praising trash—though it does involve that…but constantly inventing reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feelings whatever.  The reviewer, jaded though he may be, is professionally interested in books, and out of the thousands that appear annually, there are probably fifty or a hundred that he would enjoy writing about.  If he is a top-notcher in his profession he may get hold of ten or twenty of them: more probably he gets hold of two or three.  The rest of his work, however conscientious he may be in praising or damning, is in essence humbug.  He is pouring his immortal spirit down the drain, half a pint at a time.—George Orwell, “Confessions of a Book Reviewer,” 1946.

 

·       Is he [the reviewer] to relate every book that he reads to the eternal standards of literary excellence?  Were he to do that, his reviews would be one long ululation.—Harold Nicholson

 

·       Too much book reviewing dulls the mind.—Joseph Epstein, “Reviewing and Being Reviewed,” Plausible Prejudices, 1985.

 

·       It is the lot of the critic…no matter how influential or how capably he eventually comes to terms with the real nature of his talent, to be regarded as someone who falls short.—Alan Ross, “Successful Failures,” TLS, July 20-26, 1990.

 

·       [Book reviewers] are usually people who would have been poets, historians, biographers, etc., if they could: they have tried their talents at one or at the other, and have failed.—Samuel T. Coleridge, “The First Lecture,” Seven Lectures on Shakespeare and Milton

 

·       A critic is someone who enters the battlefield after the war is over and shoots the wounded.—Murray Kempton

 

·       Read as little as possible of literary criticism—such things are either partisan opinions, which have become petrified and meaningless, hardened and empty of life, or else they are just clever word-games, in which one view wins today, and tomorrow the opposite view.—Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters To A Young Poet, Letter Three, 1903.

 

·       Criticism is a study by which men grow important and formidable at very small expence.  The power of invention has been conferred by nature upon few, and the labour of learning those sciences which may, by mere labour, be obtained, is too great to be willingly endured; but every man can exert such judgment as he has upon the works of others; and he whom nature has made weak, and idleness keeps ignorant, may yet support his vanity by the name of a critic.—Samuel Johnson

 

·       Critics are like horse-flies which prevent the horse from ploughing.  The horse works, all its muscles drawn tight like the strings on a double-bass, and a fly settles on his flanks and tickles and buzzes…he has to twitch his skin and swish his tail.  And what does the fly buzz about?  It scarcely knows itself; simply because it is restless and wants to proclaim: “Look, I too am living on the earth.  See, I can buzz, too, buzz about anything.”—Chekhov, according to Gorky.

 

·       Nature fits all her children with something to do;

He who would write and can’t write, can surely review.—James Russell Lowell

 

·       I have long felt that any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous.  He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae or a banana split.—Kurt Vonnegut, quoted in “The War Between Writers and Reviewers,” New York Times Book Review, January 6, 1985.

 

·       Many critics are like woodpeckers, who, instead of enjoying the fruit and shadow of a tree, hop incessantly around the trunk, pecking holes in the bark to discover some little worm or other.—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,  Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow with Extracts From His Journals and Correspondence, edited by Samuel Longfellow, 1891.

 

·       Of all the cants which are canted in this canting world, though the cant of hypocrites may be the worst, the cant of criticism is the most tormenting.—Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy.

 

·       Reviewing is the conduct of war by other means.—Peter Conrad, TLS, March 25-31, 1988.

 

·       A young critic is like a boy with a gun; he fires at every living thing he sees.  He thinks only of his own skill, not of the pain he is giving.—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow with Extracts From His Journals and Correspondence, edited by Samuel Longfellow, 1891.

 

·       There are no critics who resemble the old Florentine judge Lotto degli Agli; for he hung himself in despair for having pronounced an unjust sentence.—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow with Extracts From His Journals and Correspondence, edited by Samuel Longfellow, 1891.

 

·       Criticism itself is much criticized—which logically establishes its title.  No form of mental activity is commoner, and, where the practice is all but universal, protest against it is as idle as apology for it should be superfluous.—W.C. Brownell

 

·       …We might remind ourselves that criticism is as inevitable as breathing, and that we should be none the worse for articulating what passes in our minds when we read a book and feel an emotion about it, for criticizing our own minds in their work of criticism.—T. S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”

 

·       Good critics are often wrong, as often as lawyers and engineers; not so often as business men.  But a wrong-headed critic like Dr. Johnson may be of the greatest value just because of the intellectual life he awakes in the minds of all but the mentally dead.  Good critics are often prejudiced, but a prejudiced critic, like Chesterton for example, carries his bias on his forehead and gains consistency thereby.  But if your critic is well read and well thought; if he is intellectually honest; if he has blood in his veins and not ink and water; if he knows this wily old world and likes it without too much trusting; if he has taste and sense, why, he belongs with the poets and novelists and dramatists in the propagation of literature.  —Henry Seidel Canby, “On Criticism,” Definitions: Essays in Contemporary Criticism, 1924.

 

·       You can spot the bad critic when he starts by discussing the poet and not the poem.—Ezra Pound, A,C,B of Reading. 1934.

 

·       The sins and temptations of reviewers are legion.—L.E. Sissman, “Reviewer’s Dues,” in Book Reviewing, ed. Sylvia Kamerman.

 

·       It is scarcely possible nowadays to tell the reviews from the advertising: both tend to convey the impression that masterpieces are being manufactured as regularly as new models of motor-cars.—Edmund Wilson, “The All-Star Literary Vaudeville,” in The Shores of Light: A Literary Chronicle of the Twenties and Thirties.

 

·       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, October 1959.

 

·       I learn more about contemporary literature from obituaries than from the majority of reviews.—Wayne Koestenbaum, “Why Bully Literature?” in The Crisis of Criticism, edited by Maurice Berger, 1998.

 

·       …The ad-writer’s manner and matter are what the people want, and what the critic of the future must study to supply.”—William Dean Howells, “The Functions of the Critic.”

 

·       A reviewer may have his reasons for raving—nobody would pay to read the kind of sober assessments authors think they want—but that’s no excuse for taking him seriously.  Enjoy the show, if you can.  If he’s a professional…you get a little more.  You’ll know his standards, his code language, and his high competence and can steer by that.  Yet even the best critics have been heard to say  in real life, “I wish you’d read it and tell me what you think.”  Omniscience is on the calling card, along with the tricks and novelties; but between trash and Shakespeare, there is much uncertainty.  Just buy a “deeply flawed” novel this week and see for yourself.—Wilfrid Sheed, “The Art of Reviewing,” 1973.

 

·       These are those influential journalists who write of books with the enthusiasm of auctioneers and speak of them with the tongues of traveling salesmen.  They would probably—and certainly rightly—describe themselves as “regular fellows,” and they make their standards accordingly.  When not preoccupied with the more substantial delights of baseball and poker they emerge to pronounce their emphatic conviction that whatever volume they have last read “sure is some book.”  These obiter dicta make countless thousands rejoice, and publishers mourn whose wares do not happen to have received this invaluable advertisement.  Praise and blame are showered upon the just and unjust alike, without regard for the possible ethical or esthetic merits or demerits of the work in question.  The only author who is certain never to benefit by this apparent impartiality is the author of genuine original talent who has no friends at court.—Ernest Boyd, “Ku Klux Kriticism,” Nation, June 20, 1923.

 

·       The adversaries of good book-reviewing are many and various, but the chief one is seldom mentioned—perhaps because of its ubiquity.  We hear a lot, especially from academics, about reviews not being academic enough; and it is true that “name” reviewing of the Evel-Knievel-on-Kierkegaard variety often shows the reviewer hideously stretched.  We hear a lot, especially from publishers, about reviewers using books as springboards for tangential musings; and it is true that the book trade might well improve if the blurb-transcribing sots of yesteryear were reinstated.  And we hear a lot, especially from authors, about “showing off,” about metropolitan spite, and about the unearned asperity of the menial scribbler—“i.e., cheek,” as F. W. Bateson once labelled the tendency.  These vices exist, perhaps, but they don’t seriously diminish that corner of intellectual life which literary journalism inhabits.  The crucial defect is really no different from that of any other kind of writing: it is dullness.  The literary pages throng with people about whom one has no real feelings either way—except that one can’t be bothered to read them.—Martin Amis, “Life Class,” The War Against Cliché,  2001.

 

·       Reviewing, like other fallen activities, is never quite perfect; looking on the bright side, however, this means there is always room for improvement.—NB, Times Literary Supplement, December 29, 1995.

 

 

I welcome comments, questions, corrections, additions, and suggestions. 

Please send correspondence to: Gail Pool