The book review seems to be the topic of the moment, maybe because online discussion of new books has partly supplanted reviewing in the print media. Tonight in New York the National Book Critics Circle has planned a roundtable discussion of the topic. A young poet named Jason Guriel prefaced a recent review (in Poetry) of three books with a justification of writing negative reviews and received a long letter in response to it further examining the question of negative reviews. This became the subject of a long exchange of comments on Poetry’s “Harriet” blog. The debate was then picked up by an online magazine called Mayday, which invited guest comment on the topic; their online forum was in turn linked by the blog of Magma magazine here in the U.K. So clearly it’s a subject that excites enormous interest, no doubt because book reviews can affect the careers of both reviewer and reviewee; and we live in an era where career is everything. We might wish that the practice of the art of poetry itself was the main attraction for anyone drawn to it, but, considering the public rewards of being a successful poet nowadays (high-paying teaching posts, prizes in excess of $100-thousand, lucrative reading fees) that wish is clearly quixotic. The following comments are informal, composed at random, and necessarily incomplete.
The conventional wisdom about reviews in the fine arts is that the worst review is no review. To gauge the value of a review, get out the tape measure and see how many inches of column it occupies. It doesn’t matter what is said. A pan can interest readers just as much as a puff. The author’s name recognition increases, and that is all that matters in terms of material success.
But surely the conventional wisdom is too simple. A rave review in The Sunday Times Book Review or Poetry can lead to copycat raves elsewhere and then to the awarding of a prize. There is a high correspondence between prize-winning and favorable reviews in the Times and the New York Review of Books. If the reviewer is a person with great prestige, like Helen Vendler or Harold Bloom, a review can form the basis for lifelong career prominence.
Fairness and objectivity are the stated goals of review editors, leading to questions like “Do you know the author?” (always asked at the Times) and “Has the author ever reviewed a book of yours?” This is admirable but doomed. Almost everyone in the poetry world knows, with varying degrees of closeness, everyone else. The insistence on impartiality also ignores literary history, which gives us Coleridge’s ecstatic reviews of Wordsworth as well as his qualified praise of the same; or Jarrell’s rave about his best friend Lowell’s Lord Weary’s Castle or Bishop’s (also a close friend) North & South; and the list goes on (add your favorite examples). One of mine: When Chester Kallman’s first collection of poems appeared, W.H. Auden, his partner of thirty years prefaced a highly favorable review with these words (which I'm robably not remembering exactly): “The fact that I have been in a close association with this author for three decades shouldn’t prevent me from doing a little log-rolling.” Honest? Yes. Objective? No.
Putting aside the question of possible damage done to the career of someone attacked in a review, Auden said we shouldn’t write negative reviews because it was bad for one’s character. I can see what he means. Because it is so easy to find fault, we can lull ourselves into feelings of superiority over not only the poor scribbler we’re mopping the floor with but also humanity at large. We can become absurdly vain about our ability to find funny one-liners that skewer a poem or its author. In fact, we can become so entertaining (almost everyone loves satire) that we get more and more assignments in ever more prominent forums, writing reviews that are much sought out for their satiric readability, not for their ability to clarify aesthetic goals of the authors in question. We can build a whole career on cleverly phrased pans, but if we are poet-critics our poetry books probably won’t meet with the same success. Other reviewers will avoid writing about them for fear of reprisal. Since prize committees are composed of poets and quite possibly poets whose work the savage reviewer has trounced, the latter won’t win prizes. So it’s easy to imagine the case of a young poet who started out with the high ideal of doing something comparable to Keats or Geoffrey Hill and then, after a decade of reviewing dabbled in only as a sideline, ending up as a celebrated reviewer-satirist; but meanwhile never discussed as a poet and largely unread as one. So perhaps it’s a paradoxical kind of success.
To return to objectivity, it can only exist in relative terms in the field of the arts. To appreciate any work of art, you must greet it with a kind of welcome, with sympathy and a disposition to appreciate. This can arise from many sources, especially friendship with the artist. It can also come from a reputation of greatness that precedes the first encounter with a given work. It can also be created in the mind of a reviewer who knows the author is in a position to give him or her a leg up in the world. By the same token, the readiness to dislike can precede a first reading of the work, either because of personal antipathy to the author or to the artistic circle or social or ethnic category to which she or he belongs; or because the author has often been negatively reviewed before. Also, it’s possible to give a bad review because you are aware the disparagement will please someone with power and patronage to dispense: they may decide to dispense some of it to you.
Those reviewers who want to approximate objectivity must do two things: they have to quote generously from the text being reviewed and they have to construct arguments that are plausible, based on common sense and fresh insights into the nature of verbal communication. It’s good to adduce opinions about the art of poetry (or about experience) stated by generally admired poets and critics in support of a point of view. What's thoroughly lame is a bald, “I love this” or “I hate this.” Opinion divorced from demonstration is nearly useless, even when stated with vehemence. That is why short reviews are nothing more than notices of publication. They shouldn’t be taken seriously as reliable appraisal because they can neither quote at length nor argue in detail. Wait, there’s a third thing that helps us trust a review: the reviewer must write well. A sloppily written review implicitly calls into question the validity of the reviewer’s judgments about others’ writing. I won't go so far as to say no one should review who hasn't published a book, and yet a published book is a credential more than usually valuable because we can read it and form an independent opinion of the capacities and biases of the author.
We always focus on the problem of objectivity of reviewers, but the discussion should move back one domino in the whole process and mention the decisive role of the book review editor. It’s so obvious, no one states it: assigning or not assigning a book is a kind of review. Because, remember, the worst review of all is the one never written or published. I doubt that the decision on which books to review can be any more objective than the eventual review itself. It is based on considerations similar to those involved when the review actually comes to be written, and we should recall that more than half of book review editors are writers, too, and themselves interested in publishing, being reviewed, and rewarded.
A dismissive review can throw formidable obstacles in the path to acceptance and admiration. But the same is true of a failure to assign books by a given author. Indeed, as a means to hinder, it is probably more effective. A negative review at least makes known the book’s existence. Readers may be prompted to read a book despite sharp critiques. But if they don’t know it exists, they won't look for it, won't read it, and can't arrive at any opinion about it, positive or negative. Book review editors have more influence on the fate of books than any single reviewer. Letters to the editor expressing dissatisfaction about negative assessments of books are very common. I don’t ever recall seeing a letter to an editor criticizing him or her for failing to assign a book. But the principle of accountability, in a society attempting to align itself with justice and fair dealing, applies to everyone.
Glancing back over the above paragraphs, I see that much of it touches on what could be described as venal behavior. Unfortunately, the history of literature shows that such behavior is common. And the answer to the natural question, "How do people who behave that way live with themselves?" clearly has to be, "Oh, very easily." Perhaps once in a while a spark of self-knowledge is struck by something seen or read, but the task of extinguishing it is pretty quickly handled, by alibis and ad hominems of one sort or another.
I think we'd also have to say that book reviewing is, in the universal sum of things, not so important after all. Very few book reviews are reread, and they do not in the long run determine the continued admiration or disapproval of authors, e.g. Melville (panned) and James Gould Cozzens (puffed). They are ephemeral. Still, here, as well as in contexts immensely more crucial, I like to call to mind what the great Jewish sage Hillel wrote: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself alone, what am I? If not now, when?"