New Republic Catches Up to Book Review Debate


By Neal Comment

Well, The New Republic has finally gotten around to noticing what its editors describe as “a kind of informal national purge of book reviewers and book reviewing,” their new catchphrase for what the National Book Critics Circle was touting earlier this year as a so-called “crisis.” At the TNR offices, the anti-technology vibe verges on the Birkertsian, as when the magazine’s unsigned editorial dismisses e-books by sniffing that “it takes more than the apparition of words to constitute a book and its inner forms.” And, of course, there’s the kneejerk anti-blogger sentiment, as evidenced by the proposition that “there are, or there should be, intellectual qualifications for [book reviewing],” and that most bloggers (not to mention Oprah Winfrey) simply lack the intellectual credibility to do it right. On the other hand, to the editorialist’s credit, it is at least acknowledged that many of the people currently reviewing books for America’s newspapers and magazines can’t do much better. The proposed solution is perfect in its simplicity: “If you have a bad book critic, get a good book critic.” The irony is that many publications who choose to do just that are recruiting thoughtful book bloggers like Mark Sarvas and Maud Newton.

The TNR website has another article from the same issue in which James Wolcott reviews Faint Praise, Gail Pool‘s diagnosis of the book review’s plight (published in the summer). Pool’s argument, though, as framed by Wolcott, seems to focus less on the dwindling quantities of book reviews and more on the dwindling qualities, as when she suggests that today’s critical elite “fails in ways that can’t be dismissed as trivial or excused as inevitable,” as “unacceptable practices—widely accepted in the field—routinely undermine the very reasons we read reviews.” Pool’s strongest advocacy, again as framed by Wolcott, isn’t for preserving space for book reviewers, but about establishing standards so that the American book review doesn’t suck quite so hard.