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:

Memento Mori September 2, 2014, 5:33 pm

Charles Bowden (1945–2014)

Mentions July 16, 2014, 7:00 pm

“The End of Retirement” on MSNBC

Watch Jessica Bruder on MSNBC’s The Cycle

Official Business June 25, 2014, 8:00 am

Garry Winogrand at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

A retrospective exhibition from June 27 to September 21 in New York City

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

December 2014

Gateway to Freedom

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Guns and Poses

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Christmas in Prison

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Poison Apples

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Growing Up

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Beeper World·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The beeper, for a certain kind of Miami teenager in the Nineties, was an essential evolutionary adaptation.”
Photograph by Curran Hatleberg
Article
Hammer Island·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The place could have sprung from someone’s jealous dream about white people.”
Photograph by Emily Stein
Article
Growing Up·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The best coming-of-age stories have a hole in the middle. They pretend to be about knowledge, but they are usually about grasping, long after it could be of any use, one’s irretrievable ignorance.”
Photograph by Ben Pier
Article
Guns and Poses·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“‘It’s open shopping,’ he said. ‘A warehouse. The whole of Libya.’”
Map by Mike Reagan
Article
Christmas in Prison·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Just so you motherfuckers know, I’ll be spending Christmas with my family, eating a good meal, and you’ll all be here, right where you belong.”
Photographer unknown. Artwork courtesy Alyse Emdur

Amount that President Obama has added to America’s “brand value” according to the Nation Brands Index:

$2,100,000,000,000

A study suggested that the health effects of exposure to nuclear radiation at Chernobyl were no worse than ill health resulting from smoking and normal urban air pollution.

A Utah woman named Cameo Crispi pleaded guilty to having drunkenly attempted to burn down her ex-boyfriend’s house by igniting bacon on his kitchen stove.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

In Praise of Idleness

By

I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today