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She then cites historical references to how reviewers have always been thought of, epitomized by one of her chapter headings: "Vermin, Dogs, and Woodpeckers."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