In case you missed the snarky fun, last week The Millions ran a provocative article on the demise of the book review. I’m not sure that I agree that the book review is a dying art, and the art of pronouncing things dead (like the publishing business) is certainly thriving, but it is true that I rarely read literary hatchet jobs—and when I do, some sophomoric bit of me thrills at the claws-out, gleeful malice that seems evident in every line. Bad reviews are, I imagine, both fun and easy to write, perhaps even more satisfying than flinging an offending volume across the room, which can become an expensive habit if you use an e-reader. Thoughtful ones are more challenging, and reviews that reveal and transfigure a book’s contents (rather than the biases of the reviewer) are few and far between. Unqualified raves, meanwhile, seem undignified, insufficiently serious. Most of the time. Earlier this month the NYTBR ran Christopher Buckley’s love letter of a review of MORTALITY, Christopher Hitchens’ posthumously published collections of essays.
A few days later, in the letters section, I was interested to note that at least one reader found Buckley’s rosy review problematic. Irate in Armonk wrote “Buckley’s review reads like another tribute from the vast boys’ club of Hitchens’s intimates. I’m sure many authors would like to have their books reviewed in The New York Times by their friends, but that wouldn’t serve your readers. Neither did this review.”
His criticism brought to mind a particularly pungent line from the Millions essay that called the “nauseating chumminess of the publishing world… the Scylla of book criticism.” He called “Reviewerly narcissism… its Charybdis.” Touche.
I’m curious to know if you can cite any particularly illuminating or excoriating reviews, and if you believe the book review is dying or finding a new life online.