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Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America Paperback – May 1 2007
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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
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
"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
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
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.
Pool thinks that reviewers should write thoughtful and reasoned reviews that tell the reader what the book is about and whether we should read it and why. Yes, she says, reviewers are poorly paid if they are lucky enough to be paid at all. But there have to be standards. Of course, she's right. Readers should be able to assume a reviewer's impartiality. But we can't. The reviewer may be a friend of the author, or a rival. He may be a publicist in disguise. He may just be a lazy reviewer who didn't even read the book.
Faint Praise starts with a basic, but important, discussion of the difference between a reviewer and a critic. Acknowledging that "reviewing is a slippery subject," Pool finds the important difference is that the reviewer is reading and writing quickly, in time to be of use to the reader when the book is released. The critic is not as concerned with timeliness and his criticism may not be published until a year or more after the book is released. I think you can add to Pool's definition that a review is more of a recommendation to someone who hasn't decided whether to read the book, while criticism writes about the work in depth, with spoilers, for a reader who may have already read the book.
Pool is too dismissive of customer (amateur) reviews, especially in view of how lightly edited professional book reviews often are, how few qualifications are required to be a professional reviewer, and how many professional reviewers are shills. These criticisms, which Pool makes, are of course also true of many amateur reviews. It seems the only recourse a reader has is to be skeptical and discerning of everything you read, online or otherwise.
Faint Praise is the only book I have seen that is specifically about book reviewing. It describes book reviewing from all the angles - book publisher, book author, review publisher, review editor, reviewer, reader. I learned a lot about the process, such as how books are chosen for review, how they are assigned, how book reviewers are selected. For such a short book, and such a slippery subject, Faint Praise provides an excellent crash course in the book reviewing business.
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