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)

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Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

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The baby was due in November, when Ashley, who was a nurse, hoped to be enrolled in a graduate program to become a nurse practitioner. Getting pregnant as a teenager had forced her to put that dream on hold, but she had thought that she was finally ready; she had even submitted her application shortly before the March 15 deadline. For the first time in her adult life, Ashley felt as if her plans were coming together. Then she missed her period.

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