Book Reviews: A Tortured History

Why do lovers of literature take such joy in criticizing the critics?


Lamenting the state of the book review has been the literary world's favorite pastime ever since Edgar Allan Poe reviewed for Graham's Magazine in the 1840s. From Henry James to Heidi Julavitis, writers seem to delight in publishing manifestos that outline the book review's shortcomings and inadequacies.

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One popular complaint is that book reviews are merely a byproduct of the publishing industry and therefore stink of mediocrity, elitism, nepotism, or all three. In 1846, Poe wrote that book reviews (and the publishing industry) were a sham and riddled with nepotism: "We place on paper without hesitation a tissue of flatteries, to which in society we could not give utterance, for our lives, without either blushing or laughing outright." In 1917, H.L. Mencken bemoaned the "inconceivable complacency and conformity" of journalistic criticism. Forty years later, Elizabeth Hardwick echoed these sentiments when she said of reviewing, "Sweet, bland commendations fall everywhere upon the scene; a universal, if somewhat lobotomized, accommodation reigns."

Another criticism is that book reviews lack intelligence. In 1891, Henry James, the ultimate aesthete, complained that we publish too many reviews and none of value. Reviewing, James wrote, was all presumption and chatter and lacked "concrete literary fact"—that is specific references to and examples from the work reviewed. In his 1928 essay "The Critic Who Does Not Exist," Edmund Wilson wrote nearly the same thing: "It is astonishing to observe, in America, in spite of our floods of literary journalism, to what extent the literary atmosphere is a non-conductor of criticism." This line of criticism continues today: In 2007, Steve Wasserman wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review, "The pabulum that passes for most reviews is an insult to the intelligence of most readers."

A recent trend amongst literary hipsters (and aging literary hipsters) is to whine that reviews are "too mean." This strand of book-review-griping emphasizes the need to protect and support "the artist." In 2005, the literary magazine N+1 protested against reviews published in The New Republic for being wholly negative. In 2001, Zadie Smith, formerly the New Books columnist for Harper's magazine, published a response to critic James Wood's a review of White Teeth in The Guardian, entitled "This is how it feels to be me". In it, she asked critics to behave "more like teachers": "I wonder sometimes whether critics shouldn't be more like teachers, giving a gold star or a black cross, but either way accompanied by some kind of useful advice." In a manic 2005 article on the "Teflon age of criticism," Heidi Julavitis veered off on many tangents—including a hagiography of the New York Intellectuals, a recap of the James Wood-Zadie Smith smackdown, a bit about movies and television, a defense of workshop fiction, an attack on anti-intellectualism, an awkward confession about her "intellectual crush" on James Wood (an anti-intellectual move in and of itself), and a declaration of her belief in literature's "intrinsic value"—before concluding that book reviews should never be mean and never, ever be "snarky."

But the problem with book reviews is not that they reek of mediocrity, elitism, or nepotism; aren't smart enough or are too pretentious; or are too negative or too positive. It's that they come from a source—a human being—and we sometimes fail to take that into account.

The other issue is that these sources aren't necessarily "experts" in the field of literature. Fiction and poetry reviews usually aren't written by literature professors or scholars; instead, they're written by freelance writers or columnists, some who are qualified and some who are not.

But what makes someone qualified to review contemporary poetry and fiction? Contrary to what many people may think, these qualities aren't elusive or innate. In fact, the talents and abilities that a reviewer of poetry and fiction should possess are reflected in the techniques of some of our finest (deceased) journalistic literary critics from the past two hundred years: Margaret Fuller, Edgar Allan Poe, H.L. Mencken, Edmund Wilson, Elizabeth Hardwick, and John Updike. None of these critics was "classically" trained in academe. Fuller was a populist and a Romantic in the German tradition who signed her reviews anonymously with an asterisk and believed that her purpose as literary editor of The New York Herald Tribune in the early 1840s was to promote reading as a form of self-culture and self-knowledge. Poe, the consummate outsider/insider, saw his reviews and his column in "The Literati of New York City" published in Godey's Lady's Book as an opportunity to expose the nepotism that was as rampant in the American publishing industry in the early 19th century as it is today. (The column's subtitle was "Honest Opinions at Random Respecting their Autorial Merits, With Occasional Words of Personality.")

In the early 20th century, H.L. Mencken, editor of The Smart Set and American Mercury, despised the academic penchant for "Criticism of Criticism of Criticism." He rose out of the smoke-filled dens of Baltimore newspapers and wrote book reviews that were all style and gusto. He attacked some books and advocated others. Mencken was salty, iconoclastic, and surprisingly blithe. (The New Critics would later pooh-pooh his refusal to take literature seriously.) The purpose of Mencken's reviews was as much to make an impression on the reader as it was to evaluate the book under discussion.

Edmund Wilson, who served alternately as a literary journalist or editor for Vanity Fair, The New Republic, and The New Yorker, reiterated James's criticisms of book reviews. He was against the schools of criticism but wrote historical reviews that analyzed and contextualized a work. Wilson set out to reveal the inner workings of a book and place it within literary history.

Elizabeth Hardwick approached criticism as a creative endeavor, a necessary complement to the world of art. In a 1985 interview published in The Paris Review, she said, "...[I]n reading books and planning to write about them, or maybe just in reading certain books, you begin to see all sorts of not quite expressed things the author may not have been entirely conscious of. It's a sort of creative or 'possessed' reading." In her reviews, Hardwick could be "snippy," but she was also loyal to the text and always dignified. She described book reviewing as "a natural response to the existence in the world of works of art. It is an honorable and even an exalted endeavor. Without it, works of art would appear in a vacuum, as if they had no relation to the minds experiencing them."

In general, John Updike favored the nice-guy approach to book reviewing, one that favored and coddled the author and limited the reviewer. He had a set of standards—his "rules" of reviewing—that clearly arose out of his experiences as an oft-reviewed author. They go something like this: 1) don't review books you have any personal connection to; 2) quote the book; 3) quote the book; 4) no spoilers; 5) quote the book; 6) review the book, not the author's reputation; 7) praise unsparingly; 8) leave tradition, schools of criticism, and political/social ideas out of it; 9) remember that books are meant to be enjoyed, 10) quote the book.

There are other journalistic literary critics—Van Wyck Brooks, Lionel Trilling, Alfred Kazin, Cyril Connolly, Norman Podhoretz, Irving Howe, and so many more—with insights and approaches worth studying. This is just a start. As we look to past book reviewers, we must also look around us. Too few newspapers and magazines employ regular book columnists and reviewers. This is done in the spirit of egalitarianism, but in the digital age, where anonymous, poorly written "customer reviews" sway readers, we need to establish relationships with our literary critics. We need to trust them as "experts" hired and trained by the publications that employ them or self-educated and trained as book bloggers or "amateur" reviewers with websites of their own. In either case, we can get to know the reviewer's tastes and tics and make a more informed decision about the book under review. In the present, mosh-pit of book reviewing, it's nearly impossible to know where the freelance literary critic you're reading is coming from. Including, perhaps, this one.