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[Harper's Finest]

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

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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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