To Review or not to Review

Amit Majmudar
December 13, 2013
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Should reviewers write negative reviews, or pass over books they don’t like in silence? Should they make a point only to write positive reviews? Should they review writers they know? Should they disclose this at the outset, or at some point in the course of the review?

One thing about literary debates: You can count on at least some (sometimes most) of the debaters involved to ignore the economics.

There’s a reason a given reviewer gets a copy of the book for free. Publishers are businessmen. They see you, the book reviewer, as an outsourced producer of ad copy that can go on the jacket of the paperback and on the website, tagged with the name of the newspaper or magazine you are writing for. (If you are famous in your own right, they’ll name you and then name the publication where you praised their product.) Every newspaper review seems to begin with a summary of the book, often nearly identical to the back jacket summary; there is a reason for this convention, which is that the newspaper review is a publicity device whose labor and cost is transferred to the media outlet, and not a Service to the Noble Cause of Literature.

Every review is combed by publicists for a detachable sound bite: Providing this is your function as a reviewer. Your rave review makes it easy, but it will likely be reduced to something like, “Lush, evocative prose.—The Such and Such Times.” Likewise your mixed review, which you think full of nuance and clear-eyed insight, will be reduced to “Lush, evocative prose.—The Such and Such Times.” Now, if you are perpetrating a hatchet job, and truly hate the book in question, you must be very careful to avoid any mention of mitigating virtues, because if you throw in some grudging praise, say, about the prose style, your review will be reduced, come paperback publication time, to “Lush, evocative prose.—The Such and Such Times.”

Incidentally, by writing a negative review, you are engaging in negative publicity, and little more. You are not some stalwart guardian of Good Taste. In fact, there’s a good chance you may be the stalwart guardian of Bad Taste. Consider the reviewers who piled on Melville for Moby-Dick. Or that reviewer who laid into Keats. We should remind ourselves of the ease with which a negative review can be written: No book can display contradictory virtues at once, so you simply reproach a book for what isn’t there. Proust is slow-moving, Dante relies too heavily on formal structures, Joyce’s Ulysses lacks clarity. Thank you for your insights.

But wait, you are thinking, the reviewer serves the important function, crucial to new and established writers alike, of alerting readers to good new books, and discouraging them from bad ones. This point would make more sense if reviewers weren’t assigned books to review by an editorial gatekeeper. As any aspiring writer knows, book reviews are not assigned or written by people who have actually read everything (or even half of everything) published in a given time period and decided, in a feat of intellectual stamina and integrity, to review for us only the Best and Worst. Quite the contrary: Media coverage, both in print and on air, gets hogged by a few anointed ones, usually writers who are following up earlier market successes. Notices pile on notices for that select subgroup of books because publishers are “getting behind” each one of those books—putting more money on the horse that won last time. (The publisher has to pay Barnes and Noble Booksellers to put a given book on those eyecatching front-of-store tables. That book didn’t show up there on its own merit.) Reviewers pride themselves on their intellectual bravery and integrity in praising superior work and in calling out inferior work—and yet almost all newspaper reviewers pass over self-published authors entirely. If you need any more evidence that book reviews are only marginally autonomous extensions of the publishing industry, there you go.

The realization, on the part of publishers, that most book review sections in regional and minor newspapers and magazines have little effect on sales—while a few (like the New York Times Book Review) have a more substantial one—has led to the withering-away of book review sections in smaller newspapers across the nation. Influence, like money and fame, clusters with the few. If getting a bunch of raves from city newspapers in Des Moines and Indianapolis tripled a novel’s sales, I suspect the industry would have found a way to subsidize their continued existence. As it is, the economically influential literary reviewing continues to be centered in New York City. Why is this? Nielsen BookScan has revealed to writers and publishers alike that novel-purchasers cluster there: I am living proof that you can be a suburban Ohioan in 2011 writing about riot-torn rural India in 1947, and the statistical majority of people buying your book will still be New Yorkers. God bless ’em.

The line between the reviewer and the literary critic has always been a hazy one, never more so than now, when reviewers and literary critics themselves have ceased to know the difference. Here is my own sterling criterion: The true Literary Critic’s thinking on literature is uncoupled from the market. That is, regardless of what books have been released this season, you, my ideal Literary Critic, may well be thinking and writing about a random author who wrote in a random language in a random century you read a random number of years ago. You are contextualizing that author, thinking about larger patterns in literature, linking that book to other books, and maybe even to history, religion, politics, ethics, culture, life—bringing everything you know (and ideally, you would know a lot) to bear on your reading. And by doing so, you would make me a better reader, a better thinker. This may require you to spill past the 500-word limit customary for reviews, which you may also write, but grudgingly—fully aware you are doing something that makes Mammon smile, but not the Muse.

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