According to Bowker, “275,232 new titles and editions” were published in the United States in 2008. That’s far more books than can be reviewed by all publications, blogs, and other forms of media. And so the challenge for book-review outlets is to sort through the mass of unsolicited books that arrives every day, the e-mails from authors and PR reps, and the various other articles and notifications announcing the publication of new and interesting titles. (VQR, I’m told, receives about twenty unsolicited books a week.) Of course, the large publishing houses have an advantage in getting their books into the hands of reviewers and assigning editors, but even they struggle to get their authors the attention they very likely deserve. With that in mind, what is the best way to connect editors and writers with the books that interest them? And does every book deserve a review?
The second question raises the related concern of whether publications have an obligation to their readers to review a certain kind of book. I thought about this recently when I saw that Salon.com, a generally excellent and diverse online magazine, decided to give review space to L.A. Candy, a novel by Lauren Conrad, formerly a star of the “The Hills” reality show on MTV. The piece is a blend of profile and review, discussing Conrad’s preening at her book signing in New York and her efforts to expand beyond the facile role of reality-show star. The review portion of the article calls the book—which had a co-writer, Nancy Olin—”surprisingly entertaining, if somewhat vacuous.” We also learn that it’s filled with clichés and that “many of the book’s plotlines and characters will seem very familiar to watchers of ‘The Hills’.” But these features are somehow redemptive, as they cast the novel as “one of the most bizarrely meta projects in recent memory: a novel partly inspired by the events of a partly scripted reality show, purportedly written by one of its stars but more likely ghost-written by a novelist pretending to be her.”
It’s likely not reviewer Thomas Rogers’ fault—did he ask for this assignment?—but these comments attempt to lend a seriousness and complexity to a subject that does not deserve or strive for any. Certainly great writers have come from unexpected places—from poverty, unusual professions, strange backgrounds, or from beyond the grave (John Kennedy O’Toole and Emily Dickinson among them). Reviewers and editors should always keep their eyes open to this kind of unorthodox or overlooked talent. But did anyone actually think that this book would be worthwhile and that a publication like Salon.com should review it? For all the joys of mixing high and low culture, this is something else entirely—a respected publication digging gracelessly into the gossip-rag market. It’s especially disappointing because there are so many fiction writers out there who want desperately their books to be reviewed by a high-traffic, intellectually engaged site like Salon.com, and by one of its many good critics, such as Laura Miller. (And again, Thomas Rogers appears to be a fine critic, far better than the material dumped on him.)
If publications are looking to reinvigorate book review sections, there is much that can be done besides adopting the cable-news/infotainment ethos. Various publications have experimented with graphic reviews, such as one in the New York Times by Alison Bechdel. That same newspaper assigned television critic Ginia Bellafante to review Reif Larsen’s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, a novel in which the text is strewn with charts, maps, images, and various graphics. It’s a quiet but inspired choice: Bellafante is someone who specializes in analyzing images, and she used that experienced critical eye to write a considered, thoughtful review.
There is some room for improvement at the paper of record. The NYT Book Review (a separate section from the daily review)has received some criticism for its infrequent attention to literature-in-translation, and the paper’s two book-review sections continue to assign separately, meaning that some high-profile books are often reviewed in the daily paper by Michiko Kakutani and in the Sunday NYTBR supplement by another critic. Given the dearth of review space out there, it’s inexplicable that one paper would choose to review the same book twice.
Finally, in a June 12 review, the NYT tasked Janet Maslin with merging two of the more meaningless distinctions in contemporary literature—chick lit and summer reading—by reviewing 11 (!) books together under the title “The Girls of Summer.” Maslin initially claims to consider the concept of chick lit a useless, generic label, just as a character in J. Courtney Sullivan’s Commencement does, yet she then uses variations of the term eight times in a 1,725-word piece. She also engages in a reductive, sprint-to-the-finish style of reviewing these books, in which she offers a “crib sheet” of why they are essentially all the same. We are told that their covers use similar iconography and that ”any of these books might contain the following sentence”—it doesn’t really matter what that sentence is; it’s absurd that a critic would so lazily lump these books together after posturing towards open-mindedness.
Most writers put a lot of time, heart, passion, and effort into their books. Editors and critics should do the same when considering what and how they review—and whether they respect their audience.