Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America [Review]

Title: Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America

Author: Gail Pool

Copyright: 2007 (University of Missouri Press, Columbia and London; ISBN 978-0-82621727-1)

Length: 170 pages (including notes, bibliography, and index)

Genre: Non Fiction

Summary: Book reviews are, of course, a subject of dispute across many sectors of the reading and publishing communities; Pool accurately points out that even defining the nature of a book review is fairly slippery. Professionals clash with amateurs; readers clash with critics. Essentially, however, the author notes that book reviewing centers specifically around new books, recent publications. A review should have two major elements, an accurate description of what the book's text encompasses and an evaluation or assessment of how well the book succeeds. Assuming that the book review is intended for formal publication, there is a deadline to be met. The reviewer is hampered by the need to make a relatively quick assessment without necessarily having time to properly digest the book. The review may not be literary criticism, but it should be able to serve as a guide for potential readers, guiding them away from mediocrity while spotlighting the good and hopefully the excellent. In Pool's eyes, the review should be "an essay, however brief, an argument, bolstered by insights and observations" (see page 11 of the hardcover).

Of course the gap between theory and the practical is always greater than we like to admit. Gail Pool spends the bulk of her time in this slim volume, explaining the real drivers of and constraints on reviews and reviewing in the real-world publishing business and how that impacts on the the process. She covers the reviewing process without glossing over the ugly bits -- reviews where it is clear the reviewer did not, in fact, read the book in question or instances where the review criticizes the author, not for having written a bad book, but for having written a book that did not meet a reviewer's preferences. She even notes the ever-present hyperbole and cliched phrasing of book reviews ("luminous prose", "towering achievement", etc.). But neither is she a fan of the reviews and she makes no apologies for her disdain. Pool recognizes that writing a good book review requires time to read the book, time to consider the material and careful crafting of the final written assessment. (Pool is a professional reviewer which of course colors her argument but I don't think she's entirely self-serving in her thinking.)

Pool has ideas for improving book reviewing as a professional activity - more considered selection of what is to be reviewed, better pay for the activity and training for those who think they might want to pursue reviewing as a vocation. She recommends a greater dependence upon paid, regular columnists. She suggests that publication editors and reviewers should take more time to discuss why a particular book should be reviewed and how much space the review should be granted. Finally, she suggests that clear editorial policies regarding ethics and practice would be of service to those who review books and the readership they serve.

Also Relevant: I think every one who blogs about books would be well-served by reading this one book. This is an honest account of modern publishing operations. I understand that most casual readers don't care much about the business practices that fuel publishing. But publishing is a business, as inconvenient a truth as most readers and librarians find that to be. There are financial constraints, time constraints, and frequently constraints on the number of human beings involved in the physical process. That offends us (as consumers) because we're paying good money for the product and we feel justified in our expectations of what we should get from the transaction -- careful copy-editing, good editorial selection, etc.

None of Pool's recommendations for improving the quality of book reviews are faulty, but they are costly. Implementation of those corrective measures would add to the cost of books and magazines because her recommendations would slow down production and would involve more people (and, in American business, that means bearing the costs for employee health care). I consequently doubt the likelihood of her recommendations being implemented in our current business economy. But I loved that she wrote this book. The craft of publishing needs to improve and Pool's book points that up.