In a classic essay in Harper’s magazine, Elizabeth Hardwick described “The Decline of Book Reviewing.” Hardwick, a leading literary critic, novelist and short story writer, took it for granted in 1959 that the fate of authors and publishers depended on book reviews. But, she observed, spending “a Sunday morning with the book reviews is often a dismal experience.”
Reviewers may still have been thought of “as persons of dangerous acerbity, fickle demons, cruel to youth and blind to new work, bent upon turning the literate public away from freshness and importance out of jealousy, mean conservatism, or whatever,” but the reality was quite different. “Sweet, bland commendations fall everywhere upon the scene,” Hardwick wrote; “a universal, if somewhat lobotomized, accommodation reigns.”
I doubt anyone spends their Sunday mornings these days reading book reviews. After all, the stand-alone newspaper book review section is on the verge of extinction. Gone are The Chicago Tribune’s, the Los Angeles Times’s and The Washington Post’s. Although The Wall Street Journal still publishes 10 to 15 book reviews a week, The New York Times Book Review remains the sole dedicated newspaper book section.
Few alive today can recall the first of the great book review sections, The New York Herald Tribune’s.
Staff writers like Louis Menand continue to publish book reviews in The New Yorker, but other intellectually serious magazines, like The Atlantic, Harper’s, The Nation and The New Republic, rely almost exclusively on freelancers.
To be sure, serious commentary that situates works of fiction and nonfiction in political, ideological and aesthetic context can still be found in Bookforum, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Review of Books and any number of British publications. But if general readers are looking for advice and commentary, they’re now more likely to turn to readers’ reviews on Amazon and Goodreads or at blogs like Chick Lit Café or Rosie Amber or K. J.’s Athenaeum than at a newspaper or magazine.
The days when a leading professional book reviewer like Michael Dirda of The Atlantic or Jonathan Yardley of the Post or Michiko Kakutani of the Times served as cultural gatekeeper, tastemaker and book award mediator are gone. So, too, are the celebrity reviewers like Joan Didion or John Updike. Eric Foner, Felipe Fernández-Armesto and Keith Thomas are among the very last of the leading professional historians whose reviews regularly appear in newspaper or magazine reviews. May the memory of their predecessors—David Brion Davis, Peter Gay, Christopher Lasch, Lawrence Stone—rest in peace.
The reason is straightforward, as Phillipa K. Chong explains in Inside the Critics’ Circle, a sociological study of the decline of the literary book review: book reviews no longer attract sufficient eyeballs to generate the ad revenue that used to support book sections. But the problem is deeper than a decline in serious book readership. As Chong explains, freelance reviewers must take care lest they alienate the newspapers or magazines that hire them, or, as writers themselves, trigger reprisals from the authors whose books they might disparage, nitpick or savage.
The extraordinarily carping and judgmental unsigned reviews that once appeared in the Times Literary Supplement are no more. The sole exception: negative reviews that punch upward. Just as no one roots for Goliath, attacks on the likes of mega–best sellers like Stephen King remain fair game.
Other contributors to the decline of book reviews aimed at a broad readership include:
- Growing competition from various online publications that target specific genres.
- The internet-fueled democratization of book reviewing, also evident in the proliferation of book clubs and reading groups, that undercut the authority of a small circle of leading critics.
- The publishers’ revolt, which began in the late 1970s, against reviews considered excessively academic.
- The decline of middlebrow culture, in which cultural intermediaries like Henry Seidel Canby, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, John Erskine, Clifton Fadiman and Alexander Woollcott, sought to bring highbrow intellectualism to and promote cultural aspirations among the aspiring middle class (an important, if inexplicably neglected, subject discussed in Joan Shelley Rubin’s 1992 classic, The Making of Middlebrow Culture).
- The growing skepticism of professional expertise, which (as Pierre Bourdieu observed) is associated with the self-interested, self-serving control of access to resources, rewards, power and opportunity and with the definition of acceptable attitudes and viewpoints.
Chong’s book might best be understood as a striking and impressive example of an emerging field: the sociology of evaluation—the process by which a book, a movie, a musical composition acquires worth or value and how a critical consensus is forged. As the author explains, 50,000 adult fiction titles are published annually by commercial and university presses; only a tiny fraction can be reviewed, and those that are chosen for review are selected based not on quality, but on other grounds:
- On the likelihood that a book might become a best seller.
- On the status of the author or the publishing house.
- On whether the book is newsworthy.
- On whether the book grapples with a “big question” involving family dynamics, identity, memory or the meaning of a landmark historical event.
- On how the book might fit into broader cultural conversations.
Reviewers, in turn, are generally chosen on the basis of fit—whether their work addresses similar topics. A survey conducted by Chong found that prominent reviewers of works of literature tended to evaluate books based largely on the strength or weaknesses of characters, plot, structure, themes, technicalities of language—rhythm, word choice, sentence construction and presence of absence of clichés—and whether the book meets certain genre expectations.
Once in a while, a reviewer might seize the opportunity to review a book as a chance to avenge a slight, retaliate against a bad review or slay a competitor, but mostly reviewers are cautious and try to use a review to bolster their own reputation as careful, knowledgeable and attentive readers.
Books, like other aesthetic goods, like wine and art, are a paradigmatic example of what the sociologist Lucien Karpik calls singular goods that can’t be evaluated objectively. Certainly, reviewers might assess a book’s originality, aesthetic qualities, meaning and significance. But freelance reviewers, in particular, tend to be risk averse but also wary of being regarded as a shill.
Keats, it was once said, was killed by a bad review. But few authors these days need to worry, because reviewers, according to Chong, don’t want to write a review that deviates from consensus opinion or potentially damages their relationship with peers, editors or publicists or prompts backlash from readers, even if they don’t want to be regarded as a pushover, either.
As Chong observes, artists rarely review art exhibits. Filmmakers, as a rule, don’t review movies. Musicians rarely review albums. Playwrights rarely review theatrical performances. But book critics, for the most part, are authors, which makes most want to “play nice,” making sure not to be overly critical.
But bookselling is also an example of a “superstar market” in which 80 percent of new works of fiction sell fewer than a thousand copies, 13 percent between 1,000 and 10,000, 6 percent more than 10,000 copies and fewer than 1 percent over 100,000 copies. In other words, huge status advantages accrue to those who already have a high-profile reputation or whose books are being promoted by a major publisher. So if a reviewer is willing to take a risk in order to become the talk of the town, the solution is to mock or belittle a book by a big-name author, who is unlikely to punch back.
Chong’s book focuses on literary book reviewing. But what about the nonfiction reviews that can make or break an academic’s career and reputation?
The high-profile reviews commissioned by newspapers or magazines are as valued by editors and readers for their stylist flair and provocative perspective as for the volume that they review. As Chong observes, “the most compelling and consequential reviews come not from their being positive or negative, but from their being those that generate the most discussion.”
Book reviews, in short, are part of the “attentional economy,“ which, as the Nobel Prize–winning economist Herbert Simon observed, means that the biggest challenge facing the culture industry is to find ways to grab the attention of those consumers who are overwhelmed with competing distractions.
These newspaper and magazine reviews exist not simply to sell a book but to entertain and enlighten the publication’s readership. If you are lucky enough to be asked to write such a review, make sure that your review hooks the reader. Be engaging, interesting and compelling as well as analytic. Remember: style matters as much as substance.
Effective manuscript and academic book reviews, too, ought to go far beyond plot or thesis summary. Your job is to concisely contextualize the manuscript, assess its argument and conceptual framework, evaluate its use of evidence, and make useful suggestions.
Despite recent critiques of grading, standardized testing and college rankings, the fact is that we inhabit a culture of constant evaluation. At its most extreme, assessment relies upon employee performance tracking software that tracks active versus idle and productive versus unproductive time by measuring keystrokes or monitoring email or timing customer-facing interactions.
But even in the academy we make constant appraisals of students and colleagues—often snap judgments based on gut instinct or unconscious feelings or emotional predispositions rather than on considered evidence. Out of a well-taken fear of offending, insulting or affronting those who might evaluate us (for merit raises or on course evaluations), pulling our punches has become commonplace.
But the alternatives to transparent performance evaluations with well-defined rubrics tend to be more insidious, stealthy, opaque, arbitrary or subjective forms of assessment. When academics avoid telling students unpleasant truths, we can be as guilty of dishonest appraisals as anyone else.
Within the academy, civility isn’t the most important virtue. Sure, be polite, gracious, considerate and respectful. But one of tenure’s most important purposes is to ensure professional honesty. Be fair, but also be frank and forthright.
Specificity rather than blunt or brutal honesty is, in my mind, the best policy. Be precise, detailed and fastidious in articulating your assessment, even as you remain empathetic and open-minded about alternative explanations and points of view.
In my very first graduate school seminar session, my fellow doctoral students and I were informed about what our professor called the worst graduate student sin: the steamroller approach that sought to demolish or critique every work we read, paragraph by paragraph. Instead, think of assessment as a form of connoisseurship, consisting of informed and discriminating judgment tempered with critical understanding and an acute awareness of context.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.