“I remember a jazz critic telling me about a reviewer who wrote a wonderfully esoteric review that was for the nine other people who understood what he was talking about,” says Caldwell. “He ran into somebody who used to hang out in the jazz clubs and she walked up and said, ‘I read your review this morning.’ She paused and said, ‘So, does it swing or does it suck?’ And I thought now there’s the fundamental question that you really should be trying to answer,” Caldwell says, laughing.
Aside from the swing-or-suck determination, book reviews, says Caldwell, should be written with “coherence, sanity, kindness, and some kind of critical and analytical acumen.” As noted by Miller, some readers perceive reviews as being too gentle, providing plot summary more than anything else. “I do think a review needs to be evaluative, and I think a lot of the reviewing I read hides from that,” says Birkerts.
While most reviewers agree their work should pass judgment on some level, how they arrive there varies. “My whole view of book reviewing tends not to be highly critical—it tends to be descriptive,” says Dirda. “What is there on the page? What do I see? Let me tell you what is there, let me quote you some examples of the prose, let me tell you how I respond and what I think of this.” Kirby agrees: “In most cases, I think it’s more important to be clear about what I’m holding in my hands than it is to say, ‘Hey, bud, you’re going to like or loathe this.’”
Reviews should present a fair and honest reading of a book as well as an accurate representation of it. “You have to judge a book on its own terms rather than your own,” says Yardley. Some admit that they’ve observed that this isn’t always the case. “I sometimes read reviews of what I have read or what I have written about,” says Caldwell, “and I’m a little bit startled by how lacking they can be. I sometimes think that there’s a pool of people who are firing stuff off, and they’re not reading carefully.”
Caldwell says that while there are some good critics doing terrific work, she wouldn’t say there are a lot. “I remember more and better daily and alternative criticism in the seventies and eighties. I remember reading people like Geoffrey Stokes at the Village Voice and James Wolcott—all those loudmouth, post–Mary McCarthy, New Journalism critics who took over raw criticism in the sixties and seventies. I feel like there was a heyday, and now it’s much more workaday.”
Birkerts sees the current state of reviewing as having lost its mainstream role. “What I’m saddened by is that there’s a great flourishing around the corners of the garden, but a lot of the large-circulation venues have so dropped back or discontinued it that it creates a vacuum in the large-circulation zones of life. It used to be when a big Philip Roth book came out, there would be two pages in Time, two in Newsweek, and on and on. You’d get a real sense that it had landed squarely in the middle of the culture. Now it’ll get a hundred reviews but a lot of them will be local, smaller, more specialized.”
This, says Birkerts, creates a “balkanized sense of a literary culture.” As a result, people look to the “enormous booster power of chain stores and the kind of recommendation machine that is really driven by money, buying space, display space. It also encourages the kind of Amazon straw poll reviewing—you read half of those, they’re just complete nonsense if you know the book, but there they are, widely disseminated as opinions on the book in question. There’s less of a sense of the big main touchstone response to the book.”
Dirda says that for a similar reason, he’s been trying for years to abolish the Post’s best-seller list. “People go into bookstores with the best-seller list in their hands and say, ‘Give me Danielle Steel, or James Patterson, or Stephen King,’ or whatever. Whereas if they didn’t have those lists, they’d have to ask their friends, ‘Well, have you read anything good?’ Or they’d have to talk to librarians or go into a bookstore, wander around the shelves, and pick up interesting-looking books, read a page or two, and say, ‘Hey, this is pretty good, I think I’ll give it a try.’”
Clearly, critics and authors share a deep desire to maintain a culture that values reading and writing. “In the best of all possible worlds,” says Caldwell, “we’re all on the same side—toward the greater good of the novel or the cultural dialogue, or whatever you want to call it.” And while, as many admit, they sometimes fall short, critics, like all writers, seem to take their vocation seriously.
“It’s a humane and a human endeavor, being a book reviewer, and love is what should activate your work,” says Dirda “Your love for literature, your love for the word on the page, love for wit and humor and style—those are things that count.”
Mary Gannon is deputy editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.