Freelance journalist and former Boston Review editor Pool (Other People’s Mail, 2000) takes the pulse of the American book-reviewing profession and finds it weakening.
Considerable research enriches her jeremiad with pertinent examples from American literary history. “How can it happen,” Pool asks, “that such a serious enterprise works so badly that it often fails to work at all?” She is unhappy about several things: long essays that deal less with the book that with its context (see: New York Review of Books), routinely positive reviews by noted writers, editors who seem unwilling to cover titles by little-known authors, reviews-for-pay, the unprofessional reviews that now proliferate on such sites as Amazon.com (a frequent target here). After laying out her case in broad strokes, the author examines more closely a number of issues, including the difficult process of selecting which books to cover and which writer to assign. She finds chaos and bias throughout as she discusses such celebrated mismatches and controversies as the contretemps between Norman Mailer and John Simon over the latter’s review of Harlot’s Ghost. She devotes a chapter to the issue of accuracy and urges critics to judge books on their own terms, not to condemn Ed McBain for failing to be Leo Tolstoy. At the end, Pool raises and answers two questions. The first—Are reviews necessary?—earns a quick, positive reply. Addressing the more complex issue of what can be done to improve reviewing, she suggests we find more sensible book-selection policies, improved means of rewarding reviewers and better ways to train editors, whose quality, she believes, is cardinal. A code of ethics would be nice, too.
Some well-deserved pats on the back and slaps upside the head.