Article — From the October 1959 issue

The Decline of Book Reviewing

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Literary journalism reaches, in the case of a good many writers, such levels of vitality and importance and delight that the excuse of the fleeting moment, the pressure of time, the needs of a large public cannot be accepted, as the editors would have us do. Orville Prescott of the daily Times — is he to be accounted a casualty of speed? Is what is wanting in this critic simply time to write, a month rather than a few days? Time would no doubt produce a longer Orville Prescott review, but that it would produce a more constant inspiration is open to doubt. Richard Rovere mentioned somewhere recently the fact that he could find, today, great fascination in reading some casual article done by Edmund Wilson in 1924 for Vanity Fair or the New Republic. The longer essays Wilson has done in recent years on whatever topic engages his mind are literary works one could hardly expect regularly or even rarely in the Times, Tribune, or Saturday Review. Still, his earlier reviews are the sort of high possibility an editor would, or so one imagines, have in mind. Nothing matters more than the kind of thing the editor would like if he could have his wish. Editorial wishes always partly come true. Does the editor of the Times Book Review really yearn for a superb writer like V. S. Pritchett, who does write almost weekly short pieces in the New Statesman with a week after week brilliance that astonishes everyone? Pritchett is just as good on “The James Dean Myth” or Ring Lardner as he is on the Russian novel. Is this the kind of thing our journals hope for, or is it a light little piece by, say, Elizabeth Janeway on “Caught between books”? It is typical of the editorial mind of the Times that it most frequently assigns Pritchett to write a casual, light London letter, work of insignificant journalism, which makes little use of his unique talents for writing book reviews.

In the end it is publicity that sells books and book reviews are only, at their most, the great toe of the giant. For some recurrent best sellers like Frances Parkinson Keyes and Frank Yerby the readers would no more ask for a good review before giving their approval and their money than a parent would insist upon public acceptance before giving his new baby a kiss. The book publishing and selling business is a very complicated one. Think of those publishers in businesslike pursuit of the erotic novel who would, we can be sure, have turned down Lolita as not the right kind of sex. It is easy enough, once the commercial success of a book is an established fact, to work out a convincing reason for the public’s enthusiasm. But, before the fact has happened, the business is mysterious, chancy, unpredictable.

For instance, it has been estimated that the reviews in Time magazine have the largest number of readers, possibly nearly five million each week, and it has also been suggested that many publishers feel that the reviews in Time do not affect the sales of a book one way or another! In the face of this mystery, some publishers have concluded that Time readers, having learned Time’s opinion of a book, feel that they have somehow already read the book, or if not quite that, if not read, at least taken it in, experienced it as a “fact of our time.” They feel no more need to buy the thing itself than to go to Washington for a firsthand look at the latest works of the Republican Administration.

In a world like that of books where all is angular and unmanageable, there hardly seems to be any true need for these busy hands working to shape it all into a small, fat ball of weekly butter. The adaptable reviewer, the placid, superficial commentator might reasonably survive in local newspapers. But, for the great metropolitan publications, the unusual, the difficult, the lengthy, the intransigent, and above all, the interesting, should expect to find their audience.

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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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