The decline of book reviews

in a classic paper Harper Magazine, Elizabeth Hardwick describes the “decline of book reviews”. In 1959, the renowned literary critic, novelist, and short story writer Hardwick took it for granted that the fate of writers and publishers depended on book reviews. But, she observes, “reading book reviews on a Sunday morning is often a frustrating experience.”

Reviewers may still be considered “dangerously vitriolic, fickle demons, cruel to young people, blind to new jobs, bent on keeping a literate public away from fresh and important people”, but the reality is completely different. “The scene was filled with sweet, bland compliments,” Hardwick wrote. “A general, if somewhat excised, accommodation predominates.”

I doubt anyone reads book reviews on Sunday mornings these days. After all, independent newspaper book review sections are on the brink of extinction.Disappeared Chicago Tribuneof, los angeles timesand Washington postof.Although Wall Street Journal Still publishing 10 to 15 book reviews a week, New York Times Book Review Still the only dedicated newspaper books section.

Few people today can remember the first great book review section, New York Herald Tribuneof.

Full-time writers like Louis Menand continue to publish book reviews The New Yorkerbut other academically serious journals such as atlantic organization, Harper, nationand new republicrelying almost entirely on freelancers.

To be sure, serious commentary that places fiction and non-fiction in political, ideological, and aesthetic contexts can still be found in book altar, Los Angeles Review of Books, new york review of books, and any number of UK publications. But if the average reader is looking for advice and reviews, they’re now more likely to turn to reader reviews on Amazon and blogs like Goodreads or Chick Lit Café or Rosie Amber or KJ’s Athenaeum, rather than newspapers or magazines.

The days of a leading professional book reviewer like Michael Dida atlantic organization or Jonathan Yardley postalor Michiko Kakutani’s era The people who served as cultural gatekeepers, fashion leaders and book award mediators are gone. The same goes for celebrity critics like Joan Didion or John Updike. Eric Foner, Felipe Fernández-Armesto, and Keith Thomas are the last of the leading professional historians, whose comments frequently appear in newspaper or magazine reviews. Their predecessors – David Brian Davis, Peter Guy, Christopher Rasch, Lawrence Stone – may their memories rest in peace.

The reason is simple, as Phillipa K. Chong Critics Circle, A sociological study of the decline of literary book reviews: Book reviews no longer attract enough eyeballs to generate the advertising revenue used to support book reviews. But the problem is bigger than the decline in serious book readership. As Chong explains, freelance reviewers must be careful lest they alienate the newspaper or magazine that employs them, or, as writers themselves, provoke retaliation from authors of books they may belittle, critical of, or savage with.

has appeared in period literature Replenishthere is none left. The only exception: negative reviews that hit up. Just like no one backs Goliath, attacks on super bestsellers like Stephen King are still fair game.

Other factors contributing to the decline in book reviews targeting a broad audience include:

  • There is increasing competition from various online publications targeting specific genres.
  • The Internet-fueled democratization of book reviews, also manifested in the proliferation of book clubs and reading groups, has undermined the authority of a small group of leading critics.
  • The publishers’ revolt began in the late 1970s against reviews deemed too academic.
  • The decline of middle-class culture in which cultural intermediaries such as Henry Seidel Camby, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, John Erskine, Clifton Fadiman and Alexander Woolcott , an attempt to bring high-minded intellectuals in and promote the cultural aspirations of the aspiring middle class (if the subject discussed in Joan Shelley Rubin’s 1992 classic is inexplicably ignored) The formation of the mean culture).
  • A growing skepticism of expertise (as observed by Pierre Bourdieu) has to do with self-serving control over access to resources, rewards, power, and opportunity, and the definition of acceptable attitudes and perspectives.

Chong’s book is best understood as a compelling and impressive example of an emerging field: the sociology of evaluation—the process by which a book, a film, or a piece of music acquires value or value, and how it forms critical consensus. As the authors explain, business and university presses publish 50,000 adult novels per year; only a small number can be reviewed, and those selected for review are not based on quality, but on other grounds:

  • About the possibility of a book becoming a bestseller.
  • Regarding the status of the author or publisher.
  • on whether the book is newsworthy or not.
  • As to whether the book addresses a “big question” involving family dynamics, identity, memory, or the meaning of landmark historical events.
  • on how the book fits into the wider cultural conversation.

Reviewers, in turn, are often selected on the basis of “fit” – whether their work addresses similar topics. A survey conducted by Chong found that prominent literary critics tended to base themselves on the strength of characters, plot, structure, themes, language techniques—rhythm, word choice, sentence structure and the presence of clichés—and whether the book was Meet certain types of expectations.

Occasionally, a reviewer may take the opportunity to review a book as a way to get revenge, get revenge for a bad review, or kill a competitor, but most reviewers are cautious and try to back up their reputation with reviews, as careful , knowledgeable and attentive readers.

Books, like other aesthetic goods such as wine and art, are a classic example of what sociologist Lucien Karpik calls a single commodity that cannot be objectively assessed. Of course, reviewers may assess a book for its originality, aesthetic quality, meaning, and significance. But, especially freelance reviewers, they tend to be risk averse but also wary of being seen as liars.

Keats, it was once said, Killed by bad reviews. But few authors these days need to worry because, according to Chong, reviewers don’t want to write comments that deviate from consensus or that might damage their relationships with peers, editors, or publicists, or cause backlash from readers, even if they don’t want to be criticized. considered frivolous.

As Chong observed, artists rarely censor art exhibits. Filmmakers usually don’t comment on movies. Musicians rarely comment on albums. Playwrights rarely comment on dramatic performances. But book critics are mostly authors, which makes most people want to “be good” and make sure not to be overly critical.

But book sales are also an example of a “superstar market,” where 80% of new novels sold less than 1,000 copies, 13% sold between 1,000 and 10,000 copies, 6% sold more than 10,000 copies, and less than 1% sold more than 100,000 copies. In other words, those who are already well-known or whose books are being promoted by major publishers gain a huge status advantage. So if reviewers are willing to risk being the talk of the town, the solution is to mock or disparage the book of a big-name author who is unlikely to hit back.

Chong’s book focuses on literary book reviews. But what about nonfiction reviews that can make or break a scholar’s career and reputation?

High-profile reviews commissioned by newspapers or magazines are valued by editors and readers alike for their style and provocative perspective, as are the number of their reviews. As Chong observes, “the most compelling and important comments don’t come from their positives or negatives, but from those that generate the most discussion.”

In short, book reviews are part of the “attention economy,” which, as Nobel Prize-winning economist Herbert Simon has observed, means that the biggest challenge for the cultural industry is finding ways to attract those who don’t know. Measure the attention of consumers and the distraction of competition.

These newspaper and magazine reviews exist not just to sell a book, but to entertain and enlighten readers of the publication. If you’re lucky enough to be asked to write such a review, make sure your review engages readers. Attractive, interesting, engaging and analytical. Remember: style is as important as substance.

Effective manuscript and scholarly book reviews should also go well beyond the plot or thesis abstract. Your job is to concisely contextualize the manuscript, evaluate its arguments and conceptual framework, evaluate its use of evidence, and make useful recommendations.

Despite the recent criticism of grading, standardized tests, and college rankings, the truth is that we have a culture of constant evaluation. In the most extreme cases, assessments rely on employee performance tracking software that tracks activity versus idle and productive versus non-productive time by measuring keystrokes or monitoring emails or timing customer-facing interactions.

But even in the academy, we constantly evaluate students and colleagues—often making judgments based on intuition or unconscious feelings or emotional tendencies, rather than well-thought-out evidence. It has become commonplace to pull our fists out of fear of offending, insulting or offending those who might evaluate us (for grades or in course evaluations).

However, alternatives to transparent performance evaluation with clearly defined criteria are often more insidious, covert, opaque, arbitrary or subjective forms of evaluation. When academics avoid telling students unpleasant facts, we may be guilty of dishonest assessments like everyone else.

Politeness is not the most important virtue in the academy. Of course, be polite, kind, considerate and respectful. But one of the most important purposes of tenure is to ensure professional honesty. Be fair, but also be forthright.

In my opinion, being specific rather than being blunt or brutally honest is the best strategy. Be accurate, detailed and critical in expressing your assessment, even if you are empathetic and open to other interpretations and perspectives.

In my first graduate school seminar, my fellow PhD students and I were told what our professors call the worst graduate student sin: the road roller method of trying to dismantle or critique every piece of work we read. Instead, think of assessment as a form of appreciation that includes informed and discerning judgment, as well as critical understanding and a keen awareness of context.

Steven Mintz is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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