The Corner

The Truth About Book Reviews

This is over a week old, but I somehow missed it. Joe Queenan had a pretty hilarious essay in the New York Times about book reviews that’s well worth your time:

This brings us to the least-discussed subject in the world of belles-lettres: book reviews that any author worth his salt knows are unjustifiably enthusiastic. Authors are always complaining that reviewers missed the whole point of “Few Mourn the Caballero,” or took the quote about the merry leper ballerinas out of context, or overlooked the allusions to Octave Mirbeau, or didn’t mention that the author once jilted the critic after he kept begging her to go out on a double date dressed as one of the Boleyn sisters. Authors are always complaining that reviewers maliciously cited the least incandescent, least Pushkinian passages in the book, or have a grudge against them because of something that happened the night the Khmer Rouge or Joy Division broke up, or only said mean things because the author went to Exeter while the reviewer had to settle for Andover.

What makes this bellyaching so unseemly is that 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. Also, because they generally receive but a pittance for their efforts, they tend to view these assignments as a chore and write reviews that read like term papers or reworded press releases churned out by auxiliary sales reps. This is particularly true in the mystery genre, where the last negative review was written in 1943

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