From The Baffler:
“Startlingly Smart,” “remarkable,” “endlessly interesting,” “delicious.” Such are the adulatory adjectives scattered through the pages of the book review section in one of America’s leading newspapers. The praise is poignant, particularly if one happens to be the author, hoping for the kind of testimonial that will drive sales. Waiting for the critic’s verdict used to be a moment of high anxiety, but there’s not so much to worry about anymore. The general tone and tenor of the contemporary book review is an advertisement-style frippery. And, if a rave isn’t in order, the reviewer will give a stylized summary of sorts, bookended with non-conclusions as to the book’s content. Absent in either is any critical engagement, let alone any excavation of the book’s umbilical connection to the world in which it is born. Only the longest-serving critics, if they are lucky enough to be ensconced in the handful of newspapers that still have them, paw at the possibility of a negative review. And even they, embarking on that journey of a polemical book review, temper their taunts and defang their dissection. In essence they bow to the premise that every book is a gem, and every reviewer a professional gift-wrapper who appears during the holidays.
It is a pitiable present, this one that celebrates the enfeebling of literary criticism, but we were warned of it. Elizabeth Hardwick, that Cassandra of criticism, predicted it five decades ago, when she penned “The Decline of Book Reviewing” for Harper’s magazine.
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In Hardwick’s world reviewers and critics were feared as “persons of dangerous acerbity” who were “cruel to youth” and (often out of jealousy) blind to the freshness and importance of new work. Hardwick thought this an unfair estimation, but she would have found what exists now more repugnant. The reviewers at work now are rather the opposite, copywriters whose task it is to arrange the book in a bouquet of Wikipedia-blooming literary references.
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Hardwick herself underscored this when she pointed a finger at the “torpor,” the “faint dissension” and “minimal style” that had infected the book review in her time. What’s new is that this faint style has developed a politics or an ethics that gives non-judgment in the book review a high-minded justification. Per its pronouncements, all reviewers (and readers) must check their biases and privilege prior to engaging with a text.
It is a lovely sounding idea, particularly in its attempt to ground the extinction of the negative review in a commitment to fairness and equality. Kristina Marie Darling lays out the rest in her recent essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books titled “Readerly Privilege and Textual Violence: An Ethics of Engagement.” Darling, who is white, and was once a “younger female contingent laborer who more than likely qualified for food stamps,” says textual violence “takes many forms,” the most egregious occurring when “the reader makes inferences that extend beyond the work as it appears on the page.” In the example she offers, a reviewer writing for The Rumpus about a book of autobiographical essays dares to wonder whether the author’s excessively picky eating (showcased in the book) may point to an eating disorder. There it is, then: that sin of considering the content in relation to one’s own views. It is a no-can-do for Darling, who, after going through several similar iterations, concludes with an admonition: “reviewers are not arbiters of taste,” she scolds, but rather “ushers in a room full of empty chairs.”
It’s a sad demotion of the book reviewer. Books are compendiums of ideas and experiences, a comment on the world in which they exist, a template as to how a different one, for better or worse, may be imagined. Why set up strict boundaries to criticism, such that nothing short of a thoroughly purified, bleached, and ironed, scolded and warned individual dares take up the task? Why require your reviewers to offer only vapid and overblown praise of whatever they find between the pages?
This new ethic of book reviewing is offered up to protect and assist the unprivileged and the marginalized; and, yes, those whose context and cultures may not be easily relatable may require a bit of extra work from the reader. Yet from there the anti-negative book review cadre argues for limitations on all book reviews. Writing a critical review that dares wonder about the writer’s biography, that goes beyond the page into the suggested and imputed, is not only “textual violence” but a tacit endorsement of inequality, of exclusion, and marginalization.
Link to the rest at The Baffler
PG isn’t certain whether he is part of a small minority, but he constantly “makes inferences that extend beyond the work as it appears on the page.” His personal reactions to the book he is reading are part of his enjoyment of the book. If anyone is interested, he’s happy to talk about those reactions.
While the OP does not think “new ethic of book reviewing” is a good idea, if this ethic develops into any sort of norm for professional or semi-professional reviewers, perhaps Amazon reviews will be the only ones that are truly honest.