Joe Queenan in the New York Times has an amusing but stirring piece on ridiculously over-the-top book reviews–in short, most reviews:
The least-discussed subject in the world of belles-lettres: book reviews that any author worth his salt knows are unjustifiably enthusiastic. …
the vast majority of book reviews are favorable, even though the vast majority of books deserve little praise. Authors know that even if one reviewer hates a book, the next 10 will roll over like pooches and insist it’s not only incandescent but luminous, too. Reviewers tend to err on the side of caution, fearing reprisals down the road. …
such reviews are unfair to the reader, who may be hornswoggled into thinking that Philip Marlowe really would tip his hat at the author, or that the author has gone toe-to-toe with Joseph Conrad and given the ornery old cuss a thrashing. Books are described as being “compulsively readable,” when they are merely “O.K.”; “jaw-droppingly good,” when they are actually “not bad”; “impossible to put down,” when they are really “no worse than the last three.”
I found myself smirking and cringing all the way through his essay, depending on which of my various “book” hats I was wearing in a given sentence.
Hat Nr. 1: Occasional reviewer
In The Economist, of course.
The first thing to remember about a book review is that there is not only an author somewhere hoping for a good review but also a reviewer hoping to be told by his editor that he has written a good piece (ie, the review). And how boring is a review full of (to take examples from Queenan’s paragraph above) “O.K.” and “not bad” and “no worse than the last three.” Realistically, the editor would spike the entire piece.
So, the reviewer reverts to standard journalistic methodology: “Simplify and exaggerate.” (Before you foam with anger at all journalists, consider the alternative: “Complicate and obfuscate.” Right. Thought so.)
So now the review being written becomes “stronger”. The book is really good or really bad. Next question: If I make it really bad, can the author or anybody allied to him take revenge, now or later? Maybe? Well, perhaps I’m better off making it really good. But not all the time, because then I would lose credibility. Maybe make it really bad (to use Queenan’s ratio) 1 out of 11 times?
At The Economist we try to get around this in two ways:
1) We don’t have bylines, which protects the writer to a large extent. (Authors could in theory find out who trashed their book, but in practice are too awkward and self-conscious to inquire.)
2) We don’t allow conflicts of interest, and stopped reviewing books written by staff a few years ago. (I’m amazed that not all newspapers do this!) In those situations, the reviewer can only lose, and the author usually too.
I leave it up to you to decide whether this addresses all the subtleties of human nature.
Hat Nr. 2: Aspiring author
As you have noticed, I’m writing a book. And when the time comes, I am hoping that it will get fair and tough glowing and drooling reviews.
Seriously, I already dread the entire process that apparently comes next. Prostituting myself for blurbs (the moratorium I support is unlikely to come soon enough to be helpful), then again for reviews, then again on Jon Stewart (if I’m lucky).