In her book Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America (University of Missouri Press), former Boston Review editor Gail Pool writes:
Readers dismayed by the lack of criticism in reviews won't find more of it in other coverage, most of which is promotion, sometimes in disguise. Newspaper book features--profiles and interviews--are promotional. Readings are promotional. "Reviews" written by booksellers, even independent booksellers, are promotional. Book clubs are promotional. Even readers' guides are promotional: produced by the publishers to enhance the books' value for--and sales to--reading groups, they may be designed to encourage more thoughtful reading, but they don't encourage a critical approach. None of the guides seem to ask readers to question the quality of a book's prose, its cliched characterization, or the problems in its story line. They start from the premise that the books are good, and it's their purpose to help readers "understand" why they're good, not discover they aren't.
Nor will readers frustrated by the quality of criticism in traditional reviewing find it improved by its nontraditional counterparts. On the contrary, in self-published reviews on the Web--the main nontraditional alternative--critical failings are and are bound to be exacerbated. It may be that editors too often fail to do their job in ensuring that reviews are unbiased, informed, well written, or critically astute, but I don't see how it can possibly be an improvement to eliminate the role of editor, the readers' only chance for quality control. Unscreened, anonymous, and unedited, self-published reviews can be--an often are--as biased, uninformed, ungrammatical, and critically illiterate as they like. (122)
Pool, as she does throughout her book, shares the delusion common among "professional" book reviewers that "criticism" and " book review" are synonymous terms--or at least that at their best newspaper and magazine reviews do embody what "criticism" is all about. Pool offers plenty of objections to the standards of book reviewing as currently practiced, but she never relinquishes the notion that reviewing, when done right, is an act of literary criticism, sine qua non.
For Pool, the defining feature of criticism is the more specific act of passing judgment. "Critical" in Pool's lexicon comes close to its overly literal and reductive meaning as "finding fault" (or looking for faults but happily not finding many). A novel has "problems in its story line" or fails to meet some predetermined measure of "quality" with which the critic is inspecting the text and pronouncing it fit or flawed. Discovering that a book might not be good becomes an urgent and noble endeavor that only the "critic," properly detached and unbiased, can venture to undertake.
As I have suggested previously, critical judgment can never be avoided entirely; it always lies behind discussions of aesthetic merit. But in my opinion, judgment is only the precursor to criticism, its necessary spark but not at all its fulfillment, which is only to be found in the further elucidation of the way the work constitutes itself as a work of fiction or poetry, of the specific nature of the experience of reading the work attentively. The work may present itself in a way that is completely familiar or utterly alien, or somewhere in between. The critic at the least must give a plausible enough account of the text's perceptible qualities to make the critical judgment credible, but just as often judgment might be simply assumed, taken for granted, even neglected altogether. Criticism that is able to "encourage more thoughtful reading" is valuable criticism indeed, and if in many cases the critic discusses works he/she implicity values highly in order to "help readers 'understand' why they're good," this is probably in the long run a much more worthwhile expenditure of critical energy than the effort to demonstrate that some works aren't. (This use of critical intelligence to illuminate the aesthetic accomplishments of literary works amounts to the "promotion" of literature in the very best sense the term can bear.)
Pool is especially determined to preserve the prerogatives of editors in providing "criticism" through book reviewing. To me, this is a non sequitur. Criticism is an unavoidably personal, very individualized activity. It's my encounter with the text, your encounter with the text, not this encounter as mediated by some third party presuming to act as gatekeeper. When Pool invokes "quality control" as the editor's job description, she's identifying this as a function within the heirarchy of a newspaper or magazine. Bias-, fact-, and grammar-checking are imperatives of journalism as practiced by a self-appointed group of so-called professionals in a self-limited sphere of work, not of literary criticism, which can be (in some cases should be) thoroughly biased, indifferent to "facts" except the facts of the text at hand, and resistant to hidebound rules of grammar when they interfere with the expression of difficult ideas or impede critical insight.
Even if we accept that newspaper or magazine book sections often benefit from inspired editing, Pool's own book often reveals that this sort of inspiration is sorely lacking in most book review pages. The "plight" of book reviewing is mostly a plight of editing, which fails to provide much in the way of "quality control" in the first place and has made book reviewing in America an activity without great relevance and characterized by a stale conformity of approach. At the top of Pool's list of needed reforms is "a better means of choosing books for review" (125). "Our current system," she writes, "inevitably leads to overlooking good books, overpraising bad ones, and undermining the book page." Well, who exactly is to blame for this "current system" in which the wrong books are reviewed, bad books are praised, and the book page trivialized if not the editors of the book pages? Don't they determine what gets reviewed and who does the reviewing? Aren't they responsible for publishing bland and vacuous reviews? Why in the world would we want to revive book reviewing by reinvesting in the very process that has caused the problem to begin with?
As far as I can tell, the concern among print reviewers and editors such as Gail Pool (also expressed by numerous other such figures over the past few months) that book reviewing be saved, not least from the ragtag bloggers, comes from a fear that their identities as "book critics" are imperiled. It can't be from a fear that literature or literary criticism is imperiled, since Faint Praise itself demonstrates that book reviewing as now exemplified by working "literary journalists" has precious little to do with either. Since book reviewers are paid so little, and since, as again Pool herself attests, book reviewing is viewed by other journalists as occupying the bottom rung of the prestige ladder, the disdain for literary blogs and other "nontraditional" sources of literary discussion that drips from the pens of Gail Pool and Richard Schickel and Michael Dirda must rise from a mounting fear that their sense of separation from mere "amateurs" is at risk: If you can't look down on bloggers, after all, who can you look down on?
Faint Praise at the same time both pinpoints the reasons why book reviewing in the usual print publications can't be taken seriously and argues that book reviewing can be saved only if the current "system" and the current mode of publication remain the same, with a little tweaking and a little "education' of reviewers who game the system to their own benefit and of readers who have otherwise come to see this system as the adjunct to "book business" hucksterism that it is. It demonstrates why book reviewing as a form of literary journalism is probably doomed: Its author can see the flaws in the "system" in which she works, but can't imagine a solution outside of that system, even when such a solution is probably the only kind available.