There's been much discussion of the role of "enthusiastic" as opposed to "negative" book reviews lately, but perhaps some reflection on the limitations of the book review as a form are in order before deciding whether there are indeed too many of the latter and too few of the former.
Ron Powers's review of Dale Peck's The Garden of Lost and Found in my view points out these limitations rather clearly. Putting aside the actual merits of Peck's novel, I cannot say I find Powers's judgment convincing because he is unable to fully enough support that judgment. He certainly expresses it directly and specifically:
The Garden of Lost and Found is a garden of self-absorbed overreaching, a compost of glutted detail, absurd simile, strained and repetitive metaphor, forced aphorism; of dialogue that ricochets from the pulpy to the dead-on to the flagrantly author-imposed, disgorging exposition under the pretext of speech. Its characters are neither deeply drawn enough to be representational nor fabulous enough to sustain the fantasy genre. Peck, who has set legitimately high standards as a critic, seems here to have committed one of the most amateurish of authorial sins: rather than invite the reader into a story, he demands unconditional surrender to his solipsism and his rhetorical strut.
These are serious flaws indeed, but their enumeration comes at the very end of the review and are thus not illustrated further. Powers gives us no examples of absurd simile or strained metaphor, no sampling of the ricocheting dialogue, no sustained discussion of character development or the debilitating effects of "solipsism" and Peck's "rhetorical strut." At best we have to take Powers's word these flaws are present, at worst we must conclude they are simply his unsubstantiated opinion.
No doubt Powers could have substantiated his charges, but his review, partly through his own choices but largely because of the conventions of the review as it is currently practiced in most publications (certainly most print publications), falls short. Powers delays getting to a discussion of the book so that in the first few paragraphs he can indulge in his own kind of "rhetorical strut" ("as I clawed my way over many days from leaf to typography-fast leaf"), and the bulk of the rest of the review is plot summary. Both of these tactics are generally de rigueur in newspaper book reviewing, the first to give the review "liveliness" and the second to tell readers what the book is "about," but they leave little room for what should be the essence of a review as literary criticism, which is to clarify judgment through example and detail.
Because he does not or cannot clarify his judgment of The Garden of Lost and Found, Powers's "negative" review comes off as probably more harsh than it would be if he had explored those judgments quoted in the passage above even a little bit more thoroughly. Similarly, a postive review is likely to to seem mere "enthusiasm" when it doesn't examine the particulars of the book more closely. In many ways, book reviews are unable to avoid being categorized as either snappishly negative or blandly enthusiastic.
The book review as we now know it is essentially a journalistic form designed to "report" on books in the way other sections of a newspaper or magazine report on their subjects. As book reviewing increasingly moves from its diminishing pages in print publications to less restrictive space online, perhaps an alternative to, or at least extension of, the book review that makes it more capable of incorporating real literary criticism can be developed.