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Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America [Paperback]

Gail Pool

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Book Description

May 1 2007

For more than two hundred years, book reviewers have influenced American readers, setting our literary agenda by helping us determine not only what we read but also what we think about what we read. And for nearly as long, critics of these critics have lambasted book reviews for their overpraise, hostility, banality, and bias.

            Faint Praise takes a hard and long-overdue look at the institution of book reviewing. Gail Pool, herself an accomplished reviewer and review editor, analyzes the inner workings of this troubled trade to show how it works—and why it so often fails to work well. She reveals why bad reviewing happens despite good intentions and how it is that so many intelligent people who love books can say so many unintelligent things on their behalf.

            Reviewers have the power to award prestige to authors, give prominence to topics, and shape opinion and taste; yet most readers have little knowledge of why certain books are selected for review, why certain reviewers are selected to review them, and why they so often praise books that aren’t all that good. Pool takes readers behind the scenes to describe how editors choose books for review and assign them to reviewers, and she examines the additional roles played by publishers, authors, and readers. In describing the context of reviewing, she reveals a culture with little interest in literature, much antipathy to criticism, and a decided weakness for praise. In dissecting the language of reviews, Pool demonstrates how it often boils down to unbelievable hype.

Pool explores the multifaceted world of book reviewing today, contrasting traditional methods of reviewing with alternative book coverage, from Amazon.com to Oprah, and suggesting how the more established practices could be revised. She also explores the divide between service journalism practiced by reviewers versus the alleged high art served up by literary critics—and what this fuzzy boundary between reviewing and criticism really means.

This is the first book to analyze the field in depth, weighing the inherent difficulties of reviewing against the unacceptable practices that undermine the very reasons we read—and need—reviews. Faint Praise is a book not just for those who create and review books but also for everyone who loves books. By demystifying this hidden process, Pool helps everyone understand how to read reviews—and better decide what to read.


Product Details

  • Paperback: 184 pages
  • Publisher: University of Missouri (May 1 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0826217281
  • ISBN-13: 978-0826217288
  • Product Dimensions: 23 x 16 x 1 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 272 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #1,720,664 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

From Publishers Weekly

Woe betide the poor reviewer who must review a book on book reviewing, especially one that lashes out mercilessly at practitioners in the field. Pool, a longtime freelance reviewer and former Boston Review editor, asserts that editors too often select the wrong books and assign them to the wrong people. Reviewers in turn heap too much praise on these unworthy volumes; the reviewers are biased, unqualified, inaccurate and incompetent. (She illustrates this point with several examples of sadly laughable prose.) The pileup of criticisms is wearing, and Pool's suggested reforms, such as a reviewing code of ethics and having columnists in a variety of fields to make more knowledgeable selections of books to cover, are useful only to a point (e.g., even with a code of ethics, editors must rely on reviewers to reveal conflicts of interest). Pool is often spot-on, however, as when she opposes the reckless use of comparisons between books or authors rather than stressing what is unique about a work. Everyone in the field will applaud Pool's passionate insistence on the importance to literary culture of the serious, informed critique, which is increasingly endangered and in need of such vigorous support. (July 6)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

About the Author

 

Gail Pool is a freelance journalist and reviewer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is a former editor of the Boston Review; she has been a book columnist for the Christian Science Monitor, Cleveland Plain Dealer, and San Diego Union-Tribune; and she is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. She is the editor of Other People’s Mail: An Anthology of Letter Stories (University of Missouri Press).

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Amazon.com: 4.8 out of 5 stars  9 reviews
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Realities of Modern Reviewing April 25 2010
By Rebecca of Amazon - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
"As any reviewer knows, whatever one critic says is likely to set another's teeth on edge, the war between writers and reviewers is never ending, and critics are likely to be reviled for what they do, however well or badly they do it." ~ pg. 3

"Faint Praise" is an intellectual look at the realities of book reviewing. Since there are so few books on the subject of reviewing this is a welcome read. Gail Pool truly presents an insider's view because she is a reviewer and an editor. Therefore she sees the big picture and accurately presents an assessment of current reviewing predicaments.

While I was very interested in reading what she had to say about professional reviewers, I was even more intrigued by what she thought about Amazon reviewers. Since this book was published in 2007 Amazon has changed quite a few site features. We no longer have to worry about anonymous reviews (authors now frequently just review their books publicly without shame even though it makes them look bad) and both positive and negative reviews are often featured in the most helpful reviews section.

One of the most interesting topics of discussion was the differentiation between various types of reviewers. By reading this book you can find out if you are a literary critic, book critic, classic book reviewer or reader-reviewer.

One of the questions I've had about publishers was answered in this book. Apparently it is quite common for some publishers to send you a catalog of books to review and then to not send you the books you select. Apparently this is one of the "long-standing mysteries in reviewing."

If you are curious as to what goes on in an editor's mind when selecting books for review the answers will be very revealing. Their job is far more complex than I could have ever imagined. This book gave me a new respect for all reviewers and editors who get paid so little for so much intellectual effort.

I can recommend this book to Amazon reviewers and professional reviewer who are concerned about the state of reviewing in our society today. I think online reviews will continue to be highly popular as they are free and easy to locate within minutes.

"The reviewer who praises will never be out of work. American reviewers who are persistently critical will find that they're writing against the cultural grain. Ours is a culture that generally doesn't welcome criticism..." ~ pg. 106

~The Rebecca Review
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very highly recommended for both academic and community library Literary Studies collections Sept. 3 2007
By Midwest Book Review - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Informed and informative, "Faint Praise: The Plight Of Book Reviewing In America" by Gail Pool (a freelance journalist, reviewer, and review editor based in Cambridge, Massachusetts) is an impressively insightful, deftly written, accessibly articulate, expertly knowledgeable, and decidedly analytical survey of the multifaceted and complex world of book reviewing today. Getting a book reviewed can result in prestige for authors and their publishers, improved sales, and a raised public awareness of a particular title struggling for attention against thousands of competing books. They can also bury worthy and literate titles in a sea of inane and flawed books that are published by the tens of thousands every month. "Faint Press" provides a descriptive and comprehensive introduction to the institution of book reviewing, including such issues as why bad reviewing happens despite good intentions, why so many intelligent bibliophiles, knowledgeable readers, and gifted authors can fail at the art, craft, science, and business of writing book reviews. "Faint Praise" takes the reader behind the scenes and shows how books are chosen for review, the context in which book reviewing takes place, including a book review culture that is shows little interest in literature, a surprising antipathy toward criticism, and a vulnerability to the 'seduction of praise'. It's a sad fact of contemporary publishing that reviews so often degenerate into unmerited hype. Very highly recommended for both academic and community library Literary Studies collections, "Faint Praise" should be considered mandatory reading for anyone aspiring to become a book reviewer, and is especially valuable reading for authors, publishers, academicians, and the general reading public.
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Keep reviewing Dec 17 2007
By Dragana Djordjevic-Laky - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Too bad the joke about reviewing a book about reviewing books is already taken, so those professional reviewers (at Publisher's Weekly, see above) really do have an edge over us amateurs. Gail Pool can thus rest assured that the market for her services, which she sees as endangered, will not be diluted to the point of total dilettantism, as I sensed from her slight animosity towards online reviewers who can afford to do it for free (I, in particular, take exception and offense to her statement that reviews spare in numbers are "probably" placed by the author's friends).

Aside from occasional pokes, however, it would be unfair to call Pool's plight a rant, since she does give good reasons for her concerns. It was about time someone who knows what they're doing spoke up about the caprices of the media machine that make and break careers, in this case inflationary, over-the-top, often misinformed book reviews, and, at the heart of it, the schemes that get an author reviewing space in the first place.

Fortunately, she does not leave it at that, but also offers viable guidelines and approaches that might very well serve the overall quality of literature, if not the book industry, which appears to be the underlying problem. Since, presumably, Pool is too experienced to bear any illusions that she is stronger than the system, the most valuable message of "Faint Praise" has universal appeal: be independent-minded if you can, do not take the path of least resistance by becoming just another particle of mass culture, and read, read, read--carefully.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Tough to read, but dead-on - and more than a little depressing Oct. 21 2011
By Timothy J. Bazzett - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
FAINT PRAISE was a tough book to read, for a couple of reasons. One is simply that it is simply dense with information and research on the dismal state of book reviewing and perhaps even publishing and writing in general, in America today, making it a work which requires very close reading. A bit of a slog, even. And I really wanted to know and understand what author Gail Pool had to say, so believe me, I worked at it. The other reason it was tough to read was because I love books, and I love to read a good review too. And I have observed first-hand what has happened to the book pages in newspapers and magazines over the past several years. Yes, for all of you who share my love of books and reading - it's the case of the "incredible shrinking book page."
It's sad, believe me.

I live in Michigan and subscribe to The Grand Rapids Press, and have watched the Sunday book page(s) shrink from two pages to one, to a half, and sometimes barely a quarter page, along with the ever-present NYTimes bestsellers (an increasingly disappointing list of always the same tiresome non-literary (mostly) authors, churning out the same potato-chip schlock, and non-fiction merde about whatever the latest fad or headline might be). I was also saddened and appalled when the Washington Post Book World ceased to be a separate section and many of their staff columnists and reviewers were let go (including even, I believe, Pulitzer prize-winner Michael Dirda, who continues however to contribute reviews and pieces on a fairly regular basis). I can also remember fondly my home-delivered subscription for the NY Times Book Review, also no longer a separate option for those of us in the hinterlands.

Pool, a career book reviewer and book review editor for various publications, lays out methodically all that is wrong with book reviewing in America, cutting right to the chase, starting with the explosion of new books every year (she says 150,000 new books each year, but by now I think it's closer to 200,000) and how impossible it is to cover even a small percentage of those. She talks too of how the major New York publishing houses (now mostly controlled by European conglomerates) have a stranglehold on the attention of all the major print media which feature book reviews. (Of course they do; it's all about advertising and the bottom line.) So of course the smaller publishers, independent or university presses, get short shrift from reviewers as a matter of course.

She then cites historical references to how reviewers have always been thought of, epitomized by one of her chapter headings: "Vermin, Dogs, and Woodpeckers." It's not surprising then when she dwells on the dismally low wage paid to book reviewers, a situation that has changed very little for decades. Indeed, it may have even gotten worse with the upsurge of unpaid and unskilled - not to say poorly written - reader "reviews" which now show up online at sites like Amazon and B&N by the thousands.

Pool even gives Oprah her due, but only as a "cheerleader" for books, which is certainly true, but God knows reading, books and literacy need a champion in this distracted, digital age of the sound-byte.

Although Pool attempts to make suggestions for improving the situation and providing better reviews for a better and wider selection of books, it is sadly obvious to me that most of her carefully thought out suggestions and reasonable (to lovers of books and reading) arguments will probably fall on deaf ears, if indeed they fall on any ears at all. Because, in addition to that tyrannical "bottom line" thinking propagated by the huge foreign companies that now control publishing in this country, America has already been thoroughly "dumbed down" in nearly every aspect of life. The community of discerning readers and lovers of literature and good writing continues to shrink exponentially every day. So although I applaud and agree with almost everything Pool has to say in FAINT PRAISE, I have very little hope that things will get better.

The truth is, I was very hesitant to try to "review" this book at all, because I'm one of those "self-published reviewers" she talks about that populate the online booksellers' product pages. And I will admit, with no little embarrassment, that I often rattle off a quick "review" without spending a lot of time thinking about it - reactionary rambles, you might call them. I'm not alone, of course, but that's no excuse. I characterize my "reviews" as ABE, "awkward but earnest," and I can only hope my enthusiasm for a book shows through. And yes, my reactions are largely positive. Because I know that the writer's lot in America today - like the reviewer's - is not an easy one. Why make it harder? If I don't like a book, I simply don't finish it, and certainly don't bother to review it. And this is almost without exception. I try my best to make an honest assessment of whatever I read.

I very much appreciate Gail Pool's scholarly and incisive look at all that is wrong with book reviewing. She handled it with thoroughness, wit, and professionalism. I feel "improved" for having read it. Now if I can just work at improving what I currently call my ABE reviews. It's just that there are still so many GOOD books I want to read, and so little time. Maybe I'll somehow manage to write at least a decent, workmanlike review on occasion. I hope she'll forgive me for the sloppy ones.

- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir BOOKLOVER
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Plight March 16 2014
By artfulusedbooks - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I enjoyed reading this book. Then again, I don't plan to make a career out of editing the book-review-page of a newspaper. What a difficult job! Pool gives her insider's analysis of the sad state of the world of professional book reviewers & their editors. This is not a how-to book; but several chapters show us what NOT to do. I learned some cliches to avoid: "compelling," "impressive," etc. Two chapters offer some hope that all is not lost: Getting It Right (p. 72ff), & Improving the Trade.

I admired the no-nonsense, impassioned tone of Pool's writing.

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