Harper's Finest — January 30, 2013, 2:50 pm

Elizabeth Hardwick’s “The Decline of Book Reviewing” (1959)

A core piece in the canon of criticism on criticism

In an interview conducted recently by Harper’s Magazine associate editor Emily Stokes for the Financial Times, New York Review of Books editor and co-founder Robert Silvers recalled one of his early influences:

A few days before we met, Silvers had sent me Elizabeth Hardwick’s “The Decline of Book Reviewing,” first published in Harper’s in 1959. It’s a witty indictment of a kind of “light little review” which acts as a “hidden dissuader, gently, blandly, respectfully denying whatever vivacious interest there might be in books or in literary matters generally.”

The essay, Silvers explains, was an inspiration for the NYRB, which in its first editorial said it would not deal with books that were “trivial in their intentions or venal in their effects, except occasionally to reduce a temporarily inflated reputation.”

I ask Silvers whether he thinks serious criticism will survive the transition from print to online journlism. “Oh, it’s just unthinkable!” he says of a future without long reviews. Reviewers have a different calling from authors, he argues — being obliged above all to be “interesting” — quoting Hardwick — about even the most apparently boring subjects. Newspaper reviews, he says, often fall into the trap of trying to be comprehensive, which usually means they can’t get good reviewers, because “it’s very hard to persuade very good writers to write on books that are, shall we say, mediocre” — although, he hastily adds, he’s an admirer of the books section of the Financial Times.

Hardwick’s essay is a core piece in the canon of criticism on criticism. As Jane Hu wrote in her “A Short History of Book Reviewing’s Long Decline” at the Awl, “[T]he most quoted rejection of the book review as such might be Elizabeth Hardwick’s “The Decline of Book Reviewing” . . . the wisdom of which still holds today:

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. 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.”

The full text of “The Decline of Book Reviewing” is available at http://harpers.org/archive/1959/10/the-decline-of-book-reviewing/.

New York–area readers interested in the subject can attend a panel at the New School on Monday, February 4, at 6:30 p.m., moderated by Harper’s associate editor Christopher Beha and featuring writers Daniel Mendelsohn, Laura Miller, Troy Patterson, and Jacob Silverman, several of whom have written excellent pieces on the state of criticism in recent months:

Silverman, “Against Enthusiasm: The epidemic of niceness in online book culture” (Slate)

Miller, “The case for positive reviews” (Salon)

Mendelsohn, “A Critic’s Manifesto” (newyorker.com)

Share
Single Page

More from Harper’s Magazine:

Official Business March 17, 2015, 4:01 am

Radio Hustle

Listen to the broadcast version of “American Hustle,” Alexandra Starr’s story, for the April 2015 issue of Harper’s Magazine, about how elite youth basketball exploits African athletes.

Official Business January 8, 2015, 3:57 pm

The Art of Outrage

We defend Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish its cartoons—and our right to critique them.

Memento Mori September 2, 2014, 5:33 pm

Charles Bowden (1945–2014)

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

August 2015

In the Shadow of the Storm

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Measure for Measure

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Trouble with Israel

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Camera on Every Cop

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
“The campaign music stopped. Hundreds of people, their faces now warped by the dread of a third bomb, began running for cover.”
Photograph © Guy Martin/Panos.
Article
Part Neither, Part Both·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Eight months pregnant I told an old woman sitting beside me on the bus that the egg that hatched my baby came from my wife’s ovaries. I didn’t know how the old woman would take it; one can never know. She was delighted: That’s like a fairy tale!”
Mother with Children, by Gustav Klimt © akg-images
Article
What Recovery?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Between 2007 and 2010, Albany’s poverty rate jumped 12 points, to a record high of 39.9 percent. More than two thirds of Albany’s 76,000 residents are black, and since 2010, their poverty rate has climbed even higher, to nearly 42 percent.”
Photograph by Will Steacy
Article
Rag Time·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

From a May 23 commencement address delivered at Hofstra University. Doctorow died on Tuesday. He was 84.
“We are a deeply divided nation in danger of undergoing a profound change for the worse.”
Photograph by Giuseppe Giglia
Article
The Trouble with Israel·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“We think we are the only people in the world who live with threat, but we have to work with regional leaders who will work with us. Bibi is taking the country into unprecedented international isolation.”
Photograph by Adam Golfer

Ratio of money spent by Britons on prostitution to that spent on hairdressing:

1:1

A German scientist was testing an anti-stupidity pill.

A Twitter spokesperson conceded that a “Frat House”–themed office party “was in poor taste at best.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today