Signaling and reviews

Marginal Revolution recently asked “What’s the optimal number of book reviews?”

I responded but should clean up and expand my comment on Marginal Revolution.

Newspaper book reviews, of course, are declining in number.

It’s actually a more precipitous decline than this statement indicates, as the National Book Critics Circle Campaign to Save Book Reviews chronicles. I wrote about the issue here and, in a follow-up, here. Then again, a question exists as to how many important review sources are disappearing, especially because so many seem trivial, and the optimal length for a book review is not a new topic, as Kate’s Book Blog reminds us by quoting Orwell.

Cowen, who posted the item that instigated this post, wrote:

I just want the bottom line. I would be happier if newspapers published many more one-paragraph book reviews, but with very clear and definite evaluations. Entertainment Weekly does just this, although I find their taste in books unreliable.

This is a valid point were it not so difficult to determine the merit of a book. Because it is, we need to know how a book reviewer arrived at their conclusion and why. Otherwise they could be using different evaluation criteria than the reader would, or they might irrationally dislike the book, or be using an unfair metric, or something similar. Updike wrote: “1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.” With longer reviews, it’s often possible to separate the sins of the reviewer from the sins of the author.

The only way you can somewhat trust someone’s up or down vote is to have sufficient past information about their tastes, which, in an impersonal context, can only be gained by reading their full book reviews, or their regular books (I picked up The Friends of Eddie Coyle after seeing an interview in which Elmore Leonard recommended it). The argument goes in a circle, of course, and I think there’s a reason why book reviews continue to exist as they do: the problems with just giving books an up/down or single paragraph outweigh the benefits because of the problems inherent in judgment.

Finally, book reviews have an additional function not listed above: they act as the first draft of literary criticism and history. Books that resonate through time often have scholars who go back and examine the first reactions, and those initial reviews can kick off academic and cultural criticism. This would also seem to cause more book reviews to be written than is optimal for a reader like Tyler, but different people have different needs. Future scholars probably wish more (and more knowledgeable) reviews were written.

On the same subject, The Elegant Variation writes: “And every newspaper covers the same dozen titles. (Check Publishers Lunch’s weekly tally of most reviewed titles to get a taste of the repetition.)” That’s in large because quantity, for people who aren’t intimately involved in tracking the minutia of books, acts in part as a gauge for how interesting a book is. A brilliant review of a brilliant book in a single newspaper few read isn’t going to be enough of a stimulus to get most people interested in something. Then again, he also writes: “[…] Book Review = Good. It doesn’t always – there are plenty of mediocre to lousy reviewers out there, alienating (or at least boring) readers, but I detect very little soul searching in all this, almost no self-examination. Too many reviews are dull, workmanlike book reports.”

But what makes an exciting review? Does it mean sex, violence, flashing lights and celebrity hookups (maybe that last part is contained in the first)? One man’s exciting is another’s boring, and while I don’t argue that nothing means anything, I do argue that different reviews and reviewers provide different but valuable things; what The New York Review of Books and Entertainment Weekly provide are quite different, and while the former is more valuable, the latter still does something.

Finally, BookDaddy just posted a relatively long piece about reviewers and where they come from. It’s instructive for anyone who wants to peer at the backstage of the reviewing profession and the ideas behind it. The last ten years have probably made asking “Who is this reviewer?” more prominent in the minds of many readers, as a much more visible feedback loop exists between artists, critics and readers (or viewers, depending on the medium) than before, when one’s choice for sending corrections or disagreeing was limited to writing letters to the editor.

Weeks’ most important question is: “In short, there’s an element of moral challenge to the question: Who are you to say these things?” I would answer that you are what else you’ve written, how well you’ve written it, and what your track record is. Just we we gauge others in large part through the narrative stories and histories they tell us, we gauge critics through what they’ve done in the past. Weeks has a similar conclusion, and to my mind the only real conclusion there can be, when he says, “It’s his reviews that grant him authority, earn him any authority. A review is not an opinion, as Mr. Schickel says. It’s not even (just) a wise judgment.”

Good call. He’s echoing what I think and wrote above. Well, it would probably be more accurate to say that I’m echoing what he thinks, but I wrote most of this post before I read his commentary.

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