Gail Pool’s Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America discusses the problems inherent in book reviewing, the perceived solutions to them, the problems with her perceived solutions, and why none of this might matter if newspapers book reviews continue to diminish. Although the subtitle of her book defines it as “in America,” I suspect many of the issues about evaluating worthiness are universal. Some of her comments are specific to the American market for book reviews, and the use of the word “plight” probably comes from her implicit realization that only a small number of paid critics will work in the future. A much larger number of people like me will occupy the rest of the universe with our fractured, para- and unprofessional opinions that may or may not be worth much. Newspapers are likely to continue cutting independent reviews, which in turn reduces the number of opinions one is exposed to and the philosophies underlying why the reviewer judges a book the way he or she does.
Pool links the market pressure to the big problem with book reviewing, which remains and is perhaps exacerbated by current trends. The big problem is that “[…] assessing critical judgments inevitably comes down to taste.” You can make your argument more forcefully or less forcefully, but you can’t eliminate taste or come to a perfect solution about what makes art. I’ve been wrestling with that issue in posts concerning Elmore Leonard and B.R. Myers’ response to Leonard, and many others see it too. Taste is worth having even if it can’t be defined, and you at least need some sense of it to say anything useful about art. You also need space in which to say it, and that brings Pool’s book back to the problem of having fewer quality outlets and too few words to express a big idea.
Books about books give writers nearly infinite space to write, so Faint Praise isn’t hampered by that problem with reviews or reviews about reviews. Instead, she’s facing the problem of too many people having already dealt with the things Faint Praise discusses. You don’t need the book—Book Daddy’s discussion is adequate to understand its main points, especially since some of the comments also contribute useful ideas (oh, and read this for some juicy quotes about critics). Other writers, like Tyler Cowen, also made me think about the problem in this post. In addition to Book|Daddy, Marginal Revolution, and Critical Mass, The Elegant Variation also sometimes covers arts. I probably would’ve been much more interested in Faint Praise if its subjects hadn’t already been hashed and rehashed in so many forums. I feel déjà vu: the arguments are going in circles, the problems about what should be criticized and when and how are unsolvable, although one can be cognizant of them and thus try to write more successful. Steve Wasserman addressed current problems in the Columbia Journalism Review, and a recent symposium on book pricing dealt with similar issues. Orwell on reviewing is an older and condensed version of what Pool says. Writers keep asking about what the Internet is doing to publishing and literature, and although I won’t try to predict to the future, I do know one consequence: it has made Faint Praise superfluous because if you read all the links I posted above you’ve already learned as much if not more than you would from the book. The questions about how should one judge a work and how does one find the merit of the work remain. There is no standard and cannot be, efforts at standardization often being worse than the problem they seek to solve. So we are left with the struggle and the frequent failure of book reviews, which, like the novels they comment on, fail more often than not. Let us try to, as Zadie Smith said, fail better. I wish Pool had more and more insight on how fail better and fewer dour if correct predictions about the future of book reviewing.