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Constructive criticism puts book reviewing in perspective

Book reviewers have been upsetting and pleasing - but mostly upsetting - authors, publishers, and academics for hundreds of years. In her critique of the book-reviewing craft, "Faint Praise," Cambridge writer Gail Pool enters the debate as the reviewing culture in newspapers, magazines, and online sites is undergoing a gigantic and mostly unhealthy transformation.

That means Pool's book is timely. It is also well-conceived and well-researched. In fact, it is difficult to imagine a more thoughtful, informative book about the work I've done for nearly 40 years.

Wait. Aren't these words written by a reviewer about a book composed by another reviewer about the craft we both pursue, and then published, awfully self-referential? Yes. That said, what better audience for a review of a book about reviewing than those who consume reviews? Onward.

Sensibly beginning with a historical perspective, Pool demonstrates that during every decade over the past two centuries, "generally, the argument runs, American reviewing has never been worse." Critics of reviewing complain that reviews "are profligate in their praise, hostile in their criticism, cravenly noncommittal, biased, inaccurate, illiterate, or dull." Pool mentions critiques published in 1959 and 1993 that happened to appear under the same headline, "The Decline of Book Reviewing." That déjà vu, she says, "made me wonder whether the field was in decline yet again or whether this was merely the latest stage in one long decline."

Pool is smart enough to know that much of the carping is off-base. Indicting book reviewing per se is misleading, because what appears in, say, The New Republic should not be lumped together with the reviews in a daily paper. Furthermore, some New Republic reviewers are consistently exemplary, while others are not.

Following her smart historical summary, Pool deals, chapter by chapter, with the major issues: How do newspaper and magazine editors select books for review? Why do so many end up ignored? After a book is selected, how does the editor decide which reviewer to choose? What credentials do reviewers possess? What is their motivation, especially given the low pay? What happens to the individual book and the overall culture when reviews are factually inaccurate or otherwise misleading? Is reviewer bias, whether conscious or unconscious, inevitable? Is it even appropriate to discuss bias when, after all, reviews are meant to convey one person's opinion about a work of art? Over time, is there an appropriate balance between reviews that praise and reviews that sting? How should the content and tone of reviews be adjusted depending on the audience? How can the craft improve?

The answer to each question is lengthy and convoluted, of necessity: Easy answers do not exist. Pool is excellent at representing all sides of the debate about each conundrum. Happily, however, she goes beyond an on-the-one-hand, on-the-other hand approach to state her opinions clearly.

Given my word count for this review - and word count is one of the many issues Pool discusses - readers will need to learn the details from "Faint Praise," not from me. Instead, I will end by offering just a morsel of the ample feast awaiting any reader of Pool's lively monograph. She worries that in attempting to offer readers context, reviewers make "outlandish authorial comparisons." Who would have thought, Pool asks, "that so many women writers were 'like Jane Austen,' so many short story writers 'like Chekhov'!"

Those who absorb Pool's polemic will quite likely never read book reviews the same way again.

Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America
By Gail Pool
University of Missouri, 192 pp.
paperback, $19.95


Steve Weinberg is the author of six nonfiction books. He tries to promote better reviewing as an elected director of the National Book Critics Circle.

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