In a post commenting on Jack Schafer's recent defense of bias in book reviewing, Kevin Holtsberry (Collected Miscellany) correctly identifies this statement as the core asssumption of Shafer's argument:
The point of a book review isn't to review worthy books fairly, it's to publish good pieces.
Shafer continues: "Better to assign a team of lively-but-conflicted writers to review a slew of rotten books than a gang of dullards to the most deserving releases of the season."
Kevin takes issue with Shafer's "discarding" of the standard of fairness, asking "Isn't a fair review of worthy books what [readers of book reviews] are looking for?".
If I have to choose between "fair" reviews and "good pieces," I'll side with Kevin and take the former, if by "fair" we mean attentive to the tangible features of the book under review, as well as to the needs that a reader might have in placing the book in an appropriate context. Apparently Shafer believes this leads to "dull" writing, but that will be true only if the reader is more interested in the forced "liveliness" so many American journalists seem to think is a good substitute for thinking, or if the reviewer implicitly believes that reading the book in question is probably too much to ask of most readers and thus the "piece" he or she is writing ought to itself substitute for doing so. (Kevin identifies the problem with Shafer's position by noting how publications like Slate "get on [his] nerves" because so many of their writers "seek to be clever and entertaining" rather than informative.)
Shafer cites a review of John Updike's Villages Walter Berthoff as an example of the kind of "gutless" reviewing he opposes. Reviewers like Berthoff "genuflect to 'major writers'. . . composing fawning reviews that barely hint at how bad the books are." But Berthoff doesn't think Villages is a bad book. He attempts to put it in the context of Updike's other novels about his native region of Pennsylvania, establishes that it is "the most directly autobiographical of all Updike's novels," calls attention to Updike's signature prose style and attempts to describe how it works, provides a judicious summary of the novel's plot and characters. In other words, he tries to give as thorough an account as he can of the relevant issues to be considered in assessing this novel, to be as "fair" as possible both to a writer who's surely earned fair treatment and to readers who may or may not be as familiar with Updike's work as the reviewer. In my opinion it's a very scrupulous review, and why Shafer would choose to characterize it as "fawning" and "gutless" is a mystery to me.
(Obviously Shafer disagrees with Barthoff's conclusion that Villages embodies "a certain rueful but forgiving intelligence and, yes, wisdom about the accumulating passages, overt and hidden, of ordinary human existence," but that Walter Berthoff liked this novel while Shafer did not certainly seems an insufficient reason to call Berthoff dishonest. Shafer disdainfully notes that Berthoff is "the Henry B. and Anne M. Cabot Professor of English and American Literature Emeritus on Harvard University's faculty of arts and sciences," but if anything this information makes me more inclined to take his review seriously, while Shafer's qualifications to judge American fiction are. . .well, whatever they are.)
On the other hand, this is what Shafer takes to be a model of book-review prose:
Not all American novels are too long, but most novels which are too long these days are American. The bloated book belongs in a category with the yard-long hot dog and the stretch limo. The main difference is that the craving for extended sausage and limo comes from the customers—the eaters, the renters.
The need to publish ever-larger books, such as John Irving's 800-plus page Until I Find You, is a mysterious part of the psychology of the writer. It may be that readers like a book they can get their teeth into, but one which will dislocate their jaws? Not likely.
AS far as I'm concerned, this is babble. The generalization in the first paragraph is vacuous, and the remaining "clever" analogies are just puerile. Quite frankly, whenever I encounter a book review employing these kinds of tricks, I stop reading. The reviewer wants to impress me with his peppy prose and his cheeky views, wants to convince me his knowing attitude is much more entertaining than anything I'll find in the target of his wit. (Writers like Irving, who have unfortunately made themselves an easy mark for this kind of approach, are especially likely to receive such sophomoric treatment.) But I'm not interested, thanks. Maybe I'm just a dullard, but I'd rather have book reviews that take literary works seriously, that are not just excuses for the posturing of reviewers.
Shafer suggests that the best policy for book reviewing is anything goes, that even biased reviews can create "tension": "Can the prejudiced reviewer write against his personal feelings to tell the truth, the readers wonder?" But why should the reader have to wonder this? Why should I be more interested in some ridiculous squabble going on behind the scenes or in the banal jabbering of mod book reviewers than in the book purportedly under consideration? I take this issue of what book reviewing is for seriously because newpaper and magazine book sections are about the only forums remaining for what used to be called literary criticism. Academic journals have long abandoned text-based criticism, and literary magazines, which might be expected to compensate for this lack of serious criticism where contemporary fiction is concerned, publish very little critical commentary at all.. If general interest literary criticism is reduced to Shafer's brand of "let it all hang out" hokum, the future of serious writing in this country is bleak indeed.