Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America
"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."
–Midwest Book Review
"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."
"A thoughtful and thought-provoking guide to the artistry and scholarship, not to mention the agony and ecstasy that is part of good book reviewing... Pool's crisp, intelligent, and witty style moves the reader from the lonely and unrewarding depths to the lofty heights of book reviewing."
–Lawrence Rubin, Journal of Popular Culture
"Veteran reviewer Gail Pool comes at the problem of the declining and frequently abysmal quality of book reviews in America, across the publishing spectrum, from a down-to-earth, nitty-gritty, practical perspective... to yield a most usable and rewarding guide to the book review business."
–Anis Shivani, American Book Review
"Pool's book is timely. It is also well-conceived and well-researched. In fact, it is difficult to imagine a more thoughtful, informative book about the work I've done for nearly 40 years."
–Steve Weinberg, Boston Globe
"Pool's analysis is as wide-ranging as it is hard-hitting. Faint Praise is a brave polemic, written out of a profound love of literature, evident on every page."
–Megan Marshall, Radcliffe Quarterly
The earliest book reviews in America appeared at the end of the 18th century. They have been influencing–and frustrating–people ever since. For two centuries, reviews have set our literary agenda, helping to determine not only what we read but what we think about what we read. And for two centuries, critics-of-the-critics, often reviewers themselves, have complained that reviews are profligate in their praise, hostile in their criticism, cravenly noncommittal, biased, inaccurate, or dull. By now, so many essays have been written lamenting the sorry state of American reviewing that they comprise a minor genre. Yet no book has explored in depth the reasons for this perennial failure or the question of how reviewing might improve.
These are the issues I address in Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America, which critiques American reviewing, analyzing the workings of this troubled but important field. More than 150,000 books are published annually in the United States, and the number seems to be rising. More than ever, readers need guidance to inform them about what significant books have been published and help them decide which ones they want to read. As a longtime book reviewer, review editor, and columnist, I'm hardly a dispassionate observer, but I believe this guidance is best provided by the broad, knowledgeable, disinterested commentary that only good reviewing can offer. If our critical enterprise works so badly that it often fails to work at all, we need to understand why.
In eight chapters Faint Praise examines all aspects of the unruly world of reviewing. It discusses how editors choose a handful of books for review from the vast number that are published and how they assign them to suitable--or unsuitable--reviewers. It analyzes the roles played by editors, publishers, authors and readers, and appraises the lot of the reviewer, with his measure of prestige, his dose of scorn, and his lowly pay. It explores the context of reviewing, the traditions that have evolved in a culture with little interest in literature, much antipathy to criticism, and a weakness for praise. It contrasts reviewing with alternative book coverage, from Amazon to Oprah. And finally it suggests how our traditional methods of reviewing could be revised. Throughout, the book weighs the inherent difficulties of reviewing that make certain shortcomings inevitable against the unacceptable practices that undermine the very reasons we read–and need–reviews.
I have written Faint Praise for a general audience of readers. It will clearly interest–and provoke–people in the book field, and it can be especially useful for authors trying to navigate the world of reviews. But its subject and critical viewpoint should have wider appeal as well. For all readers, reviews remain influential: in serious fiction and nonfiction, the books that are reviewed are the ones we know about. Book clubs use reviews in making their choices. Book award committees use them in making their choices as well. And yet for most readers, the book page remains something of a mystery. Faint Praise demystifies reviewing, offering insight into this branch of the media, with its power to award prestige to authors, give prominence to topics, help shape opinion and determine taste.