Article — From the October 1959 issue

The Decline of Book Reviewing

( 4 of 5 )


A Sunday some months ago in the Herald Tribune. The following are excerpts from five reviews of current novels, reviews that sadly call to mind a teen-age theme.

(1) “The real value of the novel lies in its awareness of character, the essential personality, and the subtle effect of time.”

(2) “Occasionally some of the workings of the story seem contrived, but this is only a first impression, for foremost of all is the recreation of an atmosphere which is so strong that it dictates a destiny.”

(3) “Miss — writes well, telling the story with a matter-of-factness and vividness that help to carry the strangeness of her central theme. For a reader who relishes a touch of the macabre, it is an intriguing exploration of the imagination.”

(4) “— — —, however, is an interesting and swiftly moving book; more complicated than most of its kind, and with subtler shading to its characters. It makes good reading.”

(5) “It is also, within the framework — — has set for himself, a warm, continuously interesting story of what can happen to a group of ordinary people in a perilous situation, a situation, incidentally, at least as likely as the one Nevil Shute postulates in ‘On the Beach.’”

(“The one Nevil Shute postulates in ‘On the Beach’ “— the assurance of this phrase would give many a reader a pause, reminding us, as it does, that there are all kinds of examples of what is called “obscurity of reference.”)

About the Saturday Review, one feels more and more that it is not happy in its job. It is moody, like an actress looking for the right role in order to hit the big time. “Of Literature” has been dropped from the title, an excision the miscellaneous contents of the magazine soundly justifies. The search for feature ideas is as energetic as that of any national magazine; the editors are frantically trying to keep up with the times. With the huge increase in phonograph-record sales, the music departments have absorbed more and more space in the journal. Travel, in all its manifestations, has become an important concern — travel books, travel advice, guides to nearly as many events as Cue tries to handle. Even this is not enough. There are Racing Car issues and SR Goes to the Kitchen. Extraordinary promotion ideas occur to the staff, such as the Saturday Review Annual Advertising Award. Lines from an article on this topic read:

Because Saturday Review is continually concerned with the communications pattern in the United States, it has observed with deep interest the progressive development of advertising as a medium of idea communication, a much more subtle skill even than the communication of news.

The cover may “feature” a photograph of Joanne Woodward and recently in an issue that featured Max Eastman’s written ideas on Hemingway, not Eastman, but Hemingway, wearing a turtle-neck sweater, gazed from the cover in a “photo-portrait.” The book reviews, the long and the short articles, in Saturday Review are neither better nor worse than those of the Times; they are marked by the same lack of strenuous effort. They obviously have their audience in mind — one, it is believed, that will take only so much.

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  • 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.

    • Averagio

      Your last sentence is well written; accurate. The standard USA book review is not much more than a giveaway of at least two thirds of the plot – the New York Times is perhaps the worst in this regard. I have read reviews where the entire ending is revealed – sometimes in the first paragraph. Read the British reviews!

  • 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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