In the New York Times recently, Joe Queenan acknowledges that "the vast majority of book reviews are favorable, even though the vast majority of books deserve little praise." Queenan proceeds as if this were a revelation of a carefully-guarded secret, but anyone who reads newspaper book review sections with any frequency knows that they are filled with reviews that are not just reflexively laudatory but are rhetorically empty in every way that might otherwise qualify them as "criticism." Plot summary substitutes for analysis, effusive approval for critical judgment, nitpicking for reasoned objection.
Queenan believes this happens because "Reviewers tend to err on the side of caution, fearing reprisals down the road" or "because they generally receive but a pittance for their efforts, they tend to view these assignments as a chore and write reviews that read like term papers or reworded press releases churned out by auxiliary sales reps." While neither of these explanations speaks well of American book reviewing--even though Queenan does try to make excuses for it--I believe the simplest explanation goes even farther in clarifying the problem with newpaper book reviews: Honest criticism can't be found in these pages because criticism itself can't be found there, for reasons that are inherent to the medium.
Newspaper book reviews exist as extensions of "lifestyle" reporting. Some books also provide more refined grist to the conventional newsreporting mill, but in either case reviews function not as instances of literary criticism, not even in its most limited gereralist mode, but as sources of information, sometimes as "stories" in their own right. Since most readers of lifestyle journalism undoubtedly want mostly feel-good stories (negative stories only get in the way of "lifestyle" contentment), it only makes sense to provide book reviews, book coverage in general, that portrays the "bookworld" as full of pretty nice stuff. Anyone who thinks that real criticism--either as the serious examination of literary works in general or as the frank assessment of any particular "current book"--can be found in such coverage just hasn't come to terms with the shallow and complacent practices of contemporary journalism.
In the most recent issue of The Jewish Quarterly, Tadzio Koelb makes a similar point concerning the adulatory reception of Irène Némirovsky's Suite Française:
Whichever approach reviewers of Suite Française took — whether they followed the ‘lost book by dead writer’ angle, or played the French guilt card — they all used the limited space left after biography to indulge in fulsome but often strangely detached praise. In a perfect example of the abdication of critical responsibility in exchange for the more sensational copy to be had from Némirovsky’s biography, many reviewers used the language of the marketing material (e.g., ‘… hailed as a masterpiece …’, Financial Times; ‘hailed as a lost masterpiece’, The Times; ‘… hailed …as “a masterpiece…”’, The Scotsman). Some reviewers compared Némirovsky to great writers (to Tolstoy in the Saturday Guardian; to Chekhov in the New Statesman). Others, however, preferred to note that Némirovsky herself mentioned Tolstoy in her journals (see reviews in the London Review of Books, for example, or the Telegraph Magazine) or wrote a biography of Chekhov (as in the Evening Standard or the New Statesman) and let the implication sink in.
Both the sensationalism and the emphasis on biography, as well as "the fulsome but often strangely detached praise," to be found in the reviews of Némirovsky’s unfinished novel are entirely representative of the kind of attention works of fiction especially are accorded in newspaper book sections. Only books that will satisfy readers' desire for "quality," or that can be made to seem such through the reviewer's hyped-up language, are reviewed in the first place. Appropriate commentary then becomes an issue of finding the right kind of perfunctory praise, in some cases an emphasis on the "sensational copy" that occasionally accompanies this or that book.
I partially blame academic criticism for the dismal state of generalist book reviewing. First the wholesale retreat of criticism behind the walls of academe and then the virtual abandonment of text-based literary criticism for the treatment of literary texts as occasions for social, historical, and theoretical analysis left serious readers with few other organs of literary discussion than newspapers and a handful of magazines. These organs have been dominated by literary journalists more attuned to the protocols of journalism than to those of literature, and by writers who proceed according to the precautions outlined by Queenan. The paradoxical result is that now criticism exists neither in the academy nor in mainstream print publications. (Which is one reason that someone like James Wood, all of his shortcomings notwithstanding, has acquired the prominence he has. As someone who both closely reads and does so in accessible language, he's such an anomaly.)
Némirovsky's Suite Française is a book that could have used some actual literary criticism, by critics (maybe even "scholars") rather than "book reviewers." Such critics might have been able to explicate the novel more rigorously and with a more informed perspective on its historical, national-literary, and biographical contexts. Tazdio Koelb maintains that for fiction to be examined adequately on its own merits "we will have to resurrect the critic." I agree, but I don't see how this will be possible from within the existing conventions of either book reviewing or academic analysis.