The office of a reviewer is, in a republic of letters, as beneficial and necessary, though as odious and unpleasant, as that of an executioner in a civil state. —Editorial in the Monthly Anthology, 1807
Before the “general audience” ascended to power, aristocratic benefactors ruled the art world. For centuries, authors subsisted outside the open market. Their readers were their patrons; the audience, in theory, an audience of one, plus the hangers-on. Patronage relationships spilled into erotic ones. Eleanor of Aquitaine was surely a lover of the arts, but a Troubadour could serve multiple purposes. Wagner was in love with his benefactor’s wife; when Spenser wrote Epithalamion, he was thinking as much of patron and poet as husband and wife.
As rates of literacy increased in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries, so did the demand for and production of books. Lending libraries flourished, and fiction became the focus. In the 1600s, approximately half of the books produced in Paris were religious texts. By 1790, the figure had dropped to 10 percent.
Simultaneous with the rise of books—and of novels in particular—was the rise of book reviews. Earlier publications had short lives and small audiences, but as the number of readers went up and the cost of printing went down, reviews began to wield enormous influence.
Like an encyclopedia or almanac, the early book review was intended to be an all-encompassing, unbiased record. One review publication described itself as “an impartial account of every book published”; another declared that the reviewer’s purpose was “to give faithful account of book.” When the reviewer “affects the air and language of a censor or judge, he invades the undoubted right of the public, which is the only sovereign judge of the reputation of an author, and the merit of his compositions.”
This unprecedented outpouring of reviews meant that for the first time an author’s fortune was determined by the general public rather than by a private patron. This comparatively vast new audience was perceived by many as a serious threat to social stability. No longer could an author identify or anticipate her audience’s reaction. Her readers were too many, and they were strangers to her. How could she seduce them, and why?
As printing presses and distribution channels became more efficient, the number of reviews increased, muddying their original purpose. “Now that [the author] has sixty reviews where in the nineteenth century he had perhaps six,” Virginia Woolf wrote, “he finds that there is no such thing as ‘an opinion’ of his work. Praise cancels blame; and blame praise. Soon he comes to discount both praise and blame; they are equally worthless. He values the review only for its effect upon his reputation and for its effect upon his sales.” The effect could be hard to detect. As Woolf pointed out, “the clash of completely contradictory opinions cancel each other out. The reader suspends judgment; waits for an opportunity of seeing the book himself; very probably forgets all about it, and keeps his seven and sixpence in his pocket.”
If book reviews are nothing but free advertising, they are among the most ineffectual, ill-conceived marketing campaigns ever conceived. It’s strange to think that an account of what’s inside a book would be a good way to sell it. Imagine if McDonald’s commercials told you what went into a Big Mac: rehydrated onions, high-fructose corn syrup, ammonia-treated beef.
Woolf imagined reviewers of the future using “an asterisk to signify approval, a dagger to signify disapproval.” Today both Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly use stars to indicate books of especial interest. Reviewers, however, are not yet called “Tasters,” the term Woolf proposed, but fiction is indeed assessed in the same terms as a fish entrée: fresh, insipid, visionary, uninspired. Reading a book review is like reading about a restaurant in a city you’ve never been to, and have no plans to visit.
If there is a point to reviews, it is one that could be made more effectively, and without spectators. “With some differences,” Woolf wrote, “the medical custom might be imitated—there are many resemblances between doctor and reviewer, between patient and author. Let the reviewers then abolish themselves, or what relic remains of them, as reviewers, and resurrect themselves as doctors. . . The writer then would submit his work to the judge of his choice; an appointment would be made.” But true criticism, like an autopsy, could only be performed after death. “It is impossible for the living to judge the works of the living. Years, many years, according to Matthew Arnold, have to pass before it is possible to deliver an opinion that is not “‘only personal, but personal with passion.’”
As modified recapitulations of what already exists, reviews are inherently conservative. Space constraints inhibit speculation and dissent, which is why even elegant reviews tend to be dry, aimless, and unmotivated. Still, cramped quarters tend to strike authors as preferable to homelessness. Many aspiring and even established writers who wish to see their work in print —and to be paid for it—find non-review outlets hard to come by. The result? “A generation hid its real ideas in book reviews.”
Forced to smuggle thoughts of value into the small spaces between plot summary and biographical detail, reviewers accomplish next to nothing. Nobody tells them the truth, which is that compromises cannot be unmade and that every book read is another left unread. If more experienced authors admitted that reviews were pointless and boring—as unread as they are unreadable—who would review their books? Like hazing, reviewing is inflicted by the old and popular on the young and weak, who are told that before they can succeed at their chosen pursuit they must endure certain traditional trials.
Who reads reviews? Occasionally a lot of people. But usually just the book’s author, if she Googles herself, plus any pals, parents, exes, etc. who also search for her. Otherwise, our only readers are our friends, who feel obligated to at least skim our boring review because we liked theirs on Facebook. Why do we prioritize some imaginary “public” over people we actually know, and who read our work? Why don’t we want to write, and read, for our friends? Perhaps we fear our freedom. If we could read and write anything we wanted, what would we read and write? Probably not book reviews. Choices would have to be made.
Imagine a literary culture in which the relationship between reader and writer was as intimate and direct as the relationship between poet and patron. This would not be, and never was, a recipe for health or contentment—most marriages are unhappy. But the “passion” that Arnold thought needed to be neutralized could proudly speak its name. Why should a writer be ashamed to write for someone she knows? Why should her friends and enemies feign a lack of interest in her work? Affection, attraction, admiration, rivalry, resentment: all are aphrodisiacs, and heighten our interest in what’s before us. Nobody insists we fuck strangers—why must we read them? If the privacy of pure patronage is impossible or undesirable, the traditional courtship can be replaced by the orgy.
Sweet, bland commendations fall everywhere upon the scene; a universal, if somewhat lobotomized, accommodation reigns. . . For sheer information, a somewhat expanded publisher’s list would do just as well as a good many of the reviews that appear weekly. Elizabeth Hardwick, “The Decline of Book Reviewing,” Harper’s, 1959
A review of books is, at its heart, nothing more than a list of books. The micro-/non-reviews Woolf and Hardwick describe so saucily are not without precedent: before it began running reviews in 1751, Gentleman’s Magazine simply published the names of works that had been released in the past month. The periodical review, in other words, was and is nothing but an attempt to keep up with the events of the day, a digest of items now available in the marketplace. Chronology confers importance; our attention is called to what is new. The primary concern is not the quality of the book but the fact of the book, and especially the date it became fact.
The time has come to acknowledge the inanity of this running tally. Not only do we not want to read about Gary Shteyngart’s latest novel, we don’t even want to know it exists. Newness is not a fixed property. There must be a less arbitrary, more sensible way to encounter books, an organizational scheme better suited to identifying and highlighting excellence; one which doesn’t foreground mediocrities simply because they are the newest mediocrities. “Recent” is not a synonym for “relevant.”
Reviews are the product of a Protestant society, and like the New Testament they tell us time is infinite. If you believe in the persistence of the soul after death, you are unlikely to feel you are squandering your life on earth. No decision is your final one, no word your last; after every moment is another. In a chronologically-driven theology, there is time enough for all things, including book reviews.
But our lives will end, sooner than we think, and our youth is already almost over. The self is not a renewable resource. If we wouldn’t describe a book to someone we wanted to sleep with, we shouldn’t write about it. It is time to stop writing—and reading—reviews. The old faiths have passed away; the new age requires a new form.
The solution is not to grant distant generations absolute authority when it comes to aesthetic judgments. That would be making the same mistake on a loftier scale—counting on time to tell us what matters.
Instead of prostrating ourselves before the future, we should give our own experience its due.