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The Book Review’s Long Decline
The Awl has a great piece on “The Short History of Book Reviewing’s Long Decline,” written by Jane Hu. She does indeed start at the beginning: “Launched in 1665, the Parisian Journal des Sçavans (“sçavans,” a word related to “savant,” and denominating a version of the French “scholar”) was the first publication devoted entirely to the task of criticism.” And there’s Alexander Pope!
…Journal des Sçavans focused on objectivity; the reviews largely aimed to document findings, discoveries, and inventions in the world of biology and technology.
By the time of the first quote “book-review,” criticism had been in circulation for centuries—long enough for writers to know how it can sting. Understandably, then, the critic’s skepticism of an artist’s genius has invariably existed alongside the artist’s doubt over the critic’s judgment. It’s coincidence but seems fitting that shortly after the Journal des Sçavans launched, Alexander Pope was making such observations as:
Such shameless bards we have; and yet ’tis true
There are as mad abandon’d critics too.
The bookful blockhead ignorantly read,
With loads of learned lumber in his head,
With his own tongue still edifies his ears,
And always list’ning to himself appears.
Hu also mentions Hawthorne, Melville, H.L. Mencken, and the deluges and deserts of the American midcentury…
Why do so many book reviews exist? In part to keep the book reviewer fed, as the following modernists would suggest:
• Virginia Woolf (1939): “He has to review; for he has to live; and he has to live, since most reviewers come of the educated class, according to the standards of that class. Thus he has to write often, and he has to write much. There is, it seems, only one alleviation of the horror, that he enjoys telling authors why he likes or dislikes their books. ”
• George Orwell (1946): “In much more than nine cases out of ten the only objectively truthful criticism would be ‘This book is worthless’, while the truth about the reviewer’s own reaction would probably be “This book does not interest me in any way, and I would not write about it unless I were paid to.”
• Cyril Connolly (1948): “[R]eviewing is a whole-time job with a half-time salary, a job in which the best in him is generally expended on the mediocre in others.”
Most significant is the current state of things: “As we approached 2000, with newspapers shrinking and the Internet swelling, reports on the state of book reviewing become markedly bleak.” Not just bleak but near-death? Hu writes:
“Who Killed the Literary Critic?” was the subject of a 2008 Salon conversation between critics Laura Miller and Louis Bayard. The trigger for the discussion: a book called The Death of the Critic which hypothesized that the lack of both public intellectuals and a rigorous academic community of inquiry had caused criticism to founder. Miller considered how the increase of “too many other entertainment options” takes away from reading time. Against this, both Miller and Bayard discuss the “fuck you” aspect of modernism’s output as a factor that might drive readers to kindlier, more benevolent texts—novels and television shows that don’t wish to frighten audiences with their aggressive difficulty. “There are no critical movements evident today,” observed Miller. (And even if there were, they’re not all going to be online, or in one forum. Any real critical movement simply should not be confined to one community or some new means of communication.) Perhaps a large problem in the decline of good criticism is that readers no longer know how, or where, to find critics, and, more importantly, how to define what makes it Good.
As large cultural movements occur, book review culture can’t help but be influenced. In an Atlantic essay, Lorin Stein, after making due note of Sept. 11, rightly, refers to the ways in which online discourse has forced book reviewing to change its terms. Amazon and Google are killing the book, are killing the newspaper, are killing the book review. If the Internet has allowed anything, it has allowed this argument to be replicated ad infinitum across it. And I’m looking and hoping for a story that at least begins to let us see where book criticism might go (and if it should go at all).
We’ve got to remark that the poetry book review doesn’t seem to be going anywhere…