Home » belles-lettres, criticism

Proper Read Stuff

Faint Praise

Gail Pool
University of Missouri Press, 2007

Frank Donoghue, in his querulous and needlessly pedantic book The Fame Machine (Stanford University Press, 1996), attempted to explicate the problematically symbiotic relationship between writers and their reviewers, especially in his own area of expertise, the 18th century. In that era, the sway of patronage as a road to publication was finally ending, and the result, as Donoghue put it, was “a kind of limbo.” As the reading public grew and the technology of mass-printing became cheaper and more readily accessible, the sway of Milord over the wretches he hired to sing his praises dwindled and disappeared.
 
The craft of reviewing was then in its infancy in the modern West, and Gail Pool, in her new study Faint Praise, charts how some observers of the trade have claimed it’s never progressed past that infancy – that it’s remained a cross, squalling baby ever since.
 

 
At the heart of the comparison is the fact that we are living through a new 18th century, a new Augustan age. Where then it was popularism and the printing press realigning the publishing world, now it’s the Internet and the mushrooming of computer access to it. Where once it was the barrier between professional (i.e., gentry-sponsored) writers and non-professional (i.e., tabloid and broadsheet) writers and reviewers, now the situation is more porous still: between posters with the wherewithal to keep posting until they establish themselves as other than whim-based and those who plug away at the more conventional route to publication, with stamps and query letters and rejection slips. No authors anymore, it sometimes seems, only bloggers of one traffic-capacity or another.

But it isn’t true, any more now than then. In each case, in all cases whatsoever, the thing boils down to the sheer talent of the writers (for all her worrying, Pool acknowledges this). But that’s not ever how the publishing industry or its watchdogs see things. For them, the weather is always just a day and a half out from Doomsday.

  It should therefore be stated redundantly up front: this is in fact a book review, written for a book review website, and so the ironies multiply like toadstools in soft forest loam. Pool, a book reviewer and editor of reviews, is refreshingly even-handed in her estimation of such things as book review websites, but even so, no review organ wants to consider itself a cross, squalling baby – and nobody in their right mind wants to contribute to the death of the book review in general. But the culture is without question changing radically; the proliferation of Internet book review sites and blogs has blurred the distinction between professional and amateur reviewing almost beyond reclamation. And there’s the question of whether or not it ought to be reclaimed even if such a thing were possible.

 
Pool spends a great portion of her hyper-energetic, often terrific book conducting a stubborn, well-intentioned rearguard action against incursions on the professional life she and so many others have known (long before this reviewer was reviewing virtually, he was reviewing, well, in analog – never even guessing that the large, impractical computers newly added to the newsroom would ever pose a threat to anything, much less to the profession of the pen which had survived since Erasmus invented it four hundred years ago … a further mulch-level to the ironies). She hopes, when all is said and done, that deliberate thought, collected reason, and most of all experience will carry the day in any format. She hopes, in short, that in book reviewing, wisdom and some element of professionalism will not vanish from the Earth.

Faint Praise is a slim book, but its remit is as broad as the entire field of current literary endeavor. She’s served very well by the fact that she’s been both reviewer and review editor in her career – incompetencies endemic to the former cancel out the windy pomposities which so often characterize latter, leaving only the passion of her arguments for the reader to consider.

And ultimately, those arguments, staid and reformatory (an earlier generation would have called them ‘square’) as they are, form the shining grace of this book. Pool is a true believer, and whether you’re John Updike paying bills by bloviating in the New Yorker some approval-starved wretch running a review blog, we can all agree that we need as many true believers as we can get.

She covers everything (and she culls the very best quotes on the subject along the way – Donoghue is just about the only apropos author she doesn’t quote on her subject), from the intricacies of publishing house publicity departments to the endless logistical headaches review editors face to the constant challenges encountered by hapless freelance reviewers on deadline. Here the uninitiated reader will be granted many insights into the mechanisms of an apparatus they in all likelihood take for granted over their morning coffee when they see it in the Morning Transcript or the Boston Globe.

Pool is not the first to point out the many and varied flaws that have plagued that apparatus almost from the moment of its inception. But the combination of optimism and exasperation she expresses is curiously touching all the same:

Some level of imprecision is inevitable in reviewing, dealing as it does not only with words but with words about words, and subject as it is to journalistic pressure But do reviewers actually have to say things they don’t know? Do they have to say things they know to be untrue? Do they have to use jargon and clichés, drop irrelevant names, and pad with meaningless phrases and sentences? Do editors have to publish everything and anything that reviewers write? Whatever the level of imprecision, it’s clearly raised by the habits and traditions of the field.

The traditions she’s railing against are manifold and entrenched: editors, desperate to fill page-space, looking askance at bad writing in the pieces they publish; reviewers with axes to grind; reviewers with friends to appease; editors who want to push an agenda in their book pages; and boringly familiar book-reviewer laziness. The old saw about college literature professors ran like this: asked if he’d read a book, he replied ‘read it? Why, I haven’t even taught it!’ Pool sets her sights on such abuses in the world of reviewing and offers a bracing set of correctives.

She wants greater transparency in the whole process. She wants reviewers to do their finest work, and on time. She’d like to do away with the notorious grab-bag of reviewers’ tricks (mentioning the book once in 1,200 words, for instance, or endlessly summarizing its plot, or using flabby, place-holding adjectives like ‘compelling’ – Pool has a particular bee in her bonnet about ‘compelling’). Most of all, she wants book reviewing to mean something, to matter as a cultural voice.

She paints a gloomy scenario of the odds stacked against such an enterprise. She reports that book reviewers face an onslaught of 150,000 books published in America each year (some estimates put the number at 100,000 more – it’s probably just as well Pool didn’t see them), and the aggrieved tone that bleeds through will be familiar to any energetic reader:

And who can read 150,000 books? Admittedly, the actual starting number is smaller. Many of the books published are textbooks or specialized titles that a general book page wouldn’t review. And since, by convention, publishers bring out their books mainly throughout two big seasons, fall and spring, and book pages, by convention, review books only within their publication season – indeed, as close to the publication date as possible – review editors are only looking at a portion of the total production at any one time. No matter. The figure could well be 30,000. It could be 15,000. It’s still an unreadable number of books.

Well, some matter anyway. Pool’s figures seem apocalyptic, but anyone familiar with American publishing (as she certainly must be) will know she’s being alarming to make a point. In fact, if you subtract text books, product catalogues, car, boat, bike, motorcycle, and camera manuals, manuals on everything else (many aimed at ‘dummies’ and ‘complete idiots’), medical books, home reference titles, art instruction books, inspirational tracts, nature and pet guidebooks, children’s coloring and activity books, travel guides, and most of all Bibles, you’re left with a number a good deal smaller than 15,000. It’s closer to 5,000, and that’s before you’ve exercised any editorial vetting whatsoever – these kinds of books are designed to be used uncritically by their target audiences, and so they don’t require the attention of reviewers.

Even the merest flex in the direction of editorial discretion chops that 5,000 down even further. The simplest kinds of escapist literature, for instance, comprise a vast percentage of the remaining number, and yet no serious book editor would consider running a review of any of them. Most romances, mysteries, science fiction novels, and legal or adventure thrillers aspire to nothing more than pleasing an audience in search of predictable payoffs. Book reviews can safely ignore all but a handful of these genre works without running the risk of either missing eternal literary quality or being accused of snobbery. Likewise in the field of history and biography, where an editor with an hour’s experience can separate immediately the vast amounts of reductive pap published every year from the works of genuine potential merit. So too with the huge number of business manifestoes published annually; one, maybe two, possibly three have any merit beyond their avowed purpose of encouraging materialistic jackasses to become rich materialistic jackasses. One book in four long years’ worth of self-help manuals will display or want to display anything that warrants pointed examination on behalf of the general reader.

The list goes on: cookbooks, rock band memoirs, screenplay guides, crossword puzzles (very nearly two-thirds of the dispiriting total that worries Pool so), Sudoku puzzlers, beer almanacs, reprints of old stage plays, Hell, reprints of Shakespeare and all his canonical brethren (the publication of a new translation of War and Peace might deserve a new book review, but the annual publication of all the old translations certainly doesn’t), a vast, vast number of test-prep books for the LSAT, MCAT, CLEP, SAT, SSAT, MAT, MLAT, TOEFL, and however many other acronyms you want to add. The point is, Pool’s stage-setting notwithstanding, the numbers here are formidable but not quite unreadable (she herself observes at one point “… although we may hate to admit it, most books are mediocre”).

The testing is in the editing. The testing of all of this is in the editing. And it’s on this specific point that Pool’s energetic little book founders, not only once but time and again. She’s ready to give book reviewers credit where it’s due, admitting (ironically, in one of her book’s clunkiest sentences) that review pages live or die by the quality of their prose:

What they [the editors] mainly look for in considering new reviewers or a particular review is good writing, which is often all they have to judge by (they can’t assess the evaluation of a book unless they’ve read it), which can, in fact, be a valid indicator of good reading, and which is, in itself, a central concern: editors want their book pages read, and bad writing isn’t much of a draw.

But she’s ultimately much tougher on reviewers than on editors, for whom semi-apologetic notes are struck more often than not:

Editors themselves of course lack time, they may be faced with editorial problems more serious than a bit of jargon, and realistically they need publishable reviews, not perfect ones – as an editor once told me outright, she preferred the right date to the right word.

No reviewer who said she preferred the right date to the right word would elicit such an understanding tone from Pool, but editors get it by virtue of how overworked and underpaid they are – conditions not unknown to the average freelancer, as Pool herself must know.

Pool’s heart is in the right place, and her goal – the elevation of book reviewing in the public’s estimation, through increased ethics and professionalism – is laudable. At several points, she concedes that America is not a bookish nation, which makes her determination to save book reviewing seem all the more charmingly quixotic. She knows with an insider’s awareness the scope of the task she’s undertaken: magazines and major newspapers have made headlines lately by shrinking or eliminating their book coverage, and the rise of book-blogs and reader comments on bookselling websites has served to further marginalize what has always been a marginal field. Trying to improve that field when hearts less brave merely want to preserve it can’t be anything but praiseworthy.

It’s her suggested methods that prompt the choir to stop singing. In the utopia she envisions, book review editors would send out professional and ethical guidelines with each review copy they ship to their reviewers. Those who agreed to abide by these guidelines would get review-copies of books and would get paid – and presumably those who didn’t would be cut off, forced to peddle their wares in the poorly-lit back alleys of the Internet.

These guidelines would run to two or three pages – in Faint Praise’s single funniest line, Pool innocently says “I don’t think it would need more” – and would cover every aspect of the desired end product:

I see these guidelines describing, at a minimum the basic editorial expectations for a review, the elements which are so fundamental an editor couldn’t discuss them with a reviewer without insulting him, but which, put in writing, are simply policies – objective, impersonal, universal, and required…

The policies here would insist on concise descriptions (but not summaries) of all books, clearly stated evaluations (but not explicit praises or attacks) of those books, and they’d have a lot to say (about two or three pages ought to do it) about language and overall tone:

The guidelines might remind reviewers that they are critics, that it isn’t acceptable to write only favorable reviews, or to review only books they like, that their job is not to sell, promote, or advertise books, nor to comfort authors for their failures, no matter how many years it took to produce them, but to be critical. They might point out that ‘critical’ is not synonymous with nasty, but to liberate reviewers from this American association and also to discourage venom.

Leaving aside here that gratuitous slap at nasty Americans (Pool must be unfamiliar with the weekly blood-sport that is the London Times Literary Supplement), our author’s objective becomes clear: she wants to save book reviewing by taking all the fun out of it.

If he’d received such a sheaf of guidelines with his batch of review copies, Alexander Woollcott immediately would have set about lampooning them. Wilfrid Sheed would have heaved a mighty sigh. George Plimpton and Gore Vidal would have competed to see who could hurl his martini glass to the floor with greater vehemence (with unimpressive results all around, one fears). Norman Mailer would have rung the lawyers. Edmund Wilson would have trundled over to Pool’s office and seen what his wandering hands could do to soften her stance.

It isn’t that she’s wrong, not exactly anyway. Even the occasional reader of The New York Times Book Review will have had the frustrating experience of reading vague, log-rolling, or entirely off-subject reviews. That these reviews are unhelpful is certain; what comprises help is much less so. Pool may be justified in calling for an end to bloated, discursive reviews, but assigning reviewers corseted guidelines seems only one step removed from handing them to authors themselves. After all, if the new John Irving novel was methodically successful in doing all it intended, wouldn’t reviewing it be a snap? There’s a good possibility that book reviewing owes its dynamic, digressive, sometimes maddening nature to the fact that its subject is reading, the most personal of all aesthetic experiences. Pool has devoted her professional life to probing that experience, but her schoolmarmish prescriptions curiously misserve it. She writes:

In the end, though, for all we might say that reviewers ought to do this or that, only editors can demand it, encourage it, and finally enforce it, by refusing to run inadequate reviews.

But in her book it isn’t editors getting that three-page laundry list of dos and don’ts, it’s reviewers. In the world she describes, editors are too busy and too unsupported to do anything more than demand, encourage, or refuse; it’s the wretched writers who have to clean up their game. In reality, all the reviewing excesses Pool spends her book describing are the province of book review editors to either permit or prevent, but the situation is more fluid than she gives it. She admonishes that friends must not review friends, but what if they do it well? A conscientious editor will take the trouble to determine that, rather than send good writing a-begging for principle’s sake. She warns that a reviewer must not review only books he likes, but some good writers are much better at liking books than disliking them – are they to be turned away because they consider silence the best response to a bad book? And what about the reverse? Benjamin Schwarz can often be toweringly condemning of the works under his lamplight, and B.R. Myers is a bad book’s most vivid nightmare – does this disqualify them, despite their being two of the most gifted book reviewers writing today? And how can Pool say it must never be a reviewer’s task to promote a book, when all of us have benefited at some point from reading a passionate piece written by a reviewer doing just that for a book they’ve recently found and loved?

These elastic elements are as much a part of any good editor’s job as making sure about the right dates. Granted, Pool is right that the field is rife with abuses, but soliciting reviews by sending out admonishing pamphlets will only insure that no reviews come in. And who would want to read them if they did? Who wants to see the glories of M.F.K. Fisher reduced to the list of ingredients in the meals she describes?

The aristocratic patrons of the 18th century looked with rueful dismay on the emancipation of the print trade. They knew an era was ending, and they weren’t sanguine about what they thought was replacing it. Likewise an era is ending today, as publishing becomes less and less exclusive and the floodgates, merely cracked in the Augustan era, are now flung wide. But if the craft of book reviewing really is to be submerged in the ensuing tide, let it at least die as it always lived: prickly, opinionated, drink-besotted, and often infuriating. Infinitely preferable that, to standing neatly in line, pamphlets in hand, thoughts full of Euclid.

____
Steve Donoghue served as an Assistant Government General in Mandalay following the Third Anglo-Burmese War, and though he never shot an elephant, he did spend many hours conversing with them. He retired when the Empire fell and he now hosts the literary blog Stevereads