Article — From the October 1959 issue

The Decline of Book Reviewing

The fates of authors and publishers — not to mention the reading public — depend on book reviews — but who reviews the reviewers? Miss Hardwich undertakes one of the few thorough critiques of the leading popular reviews to appear in recent years and explains why “a Sunday morning with the book reviews is often a dismal experience.” A distinguished novelist and book reviewer herself, Miss Hardwick is the wife of the poet Robert Lowell.

There used to be the notion that Keats was killed by a bad review, that in despair and hopelessness he turned his back to the wall and gave up the struggle against tuberculosis. Later evidence has shown that Keats took his hostile reviews with a considerably more manly calm than we were taught in school, and yet the image of the young, rare talent cut down by venomous reviewers remains firmly fixed in the public mind.

The reviewer and critic are still thought of as persons of dangerous acerbity, fickle demons, cruel to youth and blind to new work, bent upon turning the literate public away from freshness and importance out of jealousy, mean conservatism, or whatever. Poor Keats were he living today might suffer a literary death, but it would not be from attack; instead he might choke on what Emerson called a “mush of concession.” In America, now, oblivion, literary failure, obscurity, neglect — all the great moments of artistic tragedy and misunderstanding — still occur, but the natural conditions for the occurrence are in a curious state of camouflage, like those decorating ideas in which wood is painted to look like paper and paper to look like wood. 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.”

The condition of popular reviewing has become so listless, the effect of its agreeable judgments so enervating to the general reading public that the sly publishers of Lolita have tried to stimulate sales by quoting bad reviews along with, to be sure, the usual, repetitive good ones. (Orville Prescott: “Lolita is undeniably news in the world of books. Unfortunately it is bad news.” And Gilbert Highet: “I am sorry that Lolita was ever published. I am sorry it was ever written.”)

It is not merely the praise of everything in sight — a special problem in itself — that vexes and confounds those who look closely at the literary scene, but there is also the unaccountable sluggishness of the New York Times and Herald Tribune Sunday book-review sections. The value and importance of individual books are dizzily inflated, in keeping with the American mood at the moment, but the book-review sections as a cultural enterprise are, like a pocket of unemployment, in a state of baneful depression insofar as liveliness and interest are concerned. One had not thought they could go downward, since they have always been modest, rather conventional journals. Still, there had been room for a decline in the last few years and the opportunity has been taken. A Sunday morning with the book reviews is often a dismal experience. It is best to be in a state of distracted tolerance when one takes up, particularly, the Herald Tribune Book Review. This publication is not just somewhat mediocre; it has also a strange, perplexing inadequacy as it dimly comes forth week after week.

For the world of books, for readers and writers, the torpor of the New York Times Book Review is more affecting. There come to mind all those high-school English teachers, those faithful librarians and booksellers, those trusting suburbanites, those bright young men and women in the provinces, all those who believe in the judgment of the Times and who need its direction. The worst result of its decline is that it acts as a sort of hidden dissuader, gently, blandly, respectfully denying whatever vivacious interest there might be in books or in literary matters generally. The flat praise and the faint dissension, the minimal style and the light little article, the absence of involvement, passion, character, eccentricity — the lack, at last, of the literary tone itself — have made the New York Times into a provincial literary journal, longer and thicker, but not much different in the end from all those small-town Sunday “Book Pages.” (The New Yorker, Harper’s, the Atlantic, the news and opinion weeklies, the literary magazines all devote a good deal of space and thought to the reviewing of books. The often awkward and the always variable results should not go unremarked. However, in these magazines the reviews are only a part of the claim upon the reader’s attention, and the peculiar disappointments of the manner in which books are sometimes treated cannot be understood without a close study of each magazine as a whole.)

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  • http://30porcento.com.br/blog/ Livraria 30porcento

    The “adaptable reviewer, the placid, superficial commentator” not only survived in local newspapers but also colonized the blogosphere. All we can find now are book descriptions alongside an evasive commentary.

  • Tom

    I used to think the perfect book review had three criteria.

    1. It provided you a sense of what was in a book.
    2. It enabled you to judge whether you wanted to read more.
    3. It was interesting in its own right.

    But then I read Sam Kriss’s review of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition” by The American Psychiatric Association, entitled “Book of Lamentations”, and I realised that

    4. Exists as a work of art

    is also possibility.

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