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.
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."