The "book review" as we now know it is more an artifact of professionalized journalism than it is a form of literary criticism. While critical consideration of "new" books is certainly a worthy task for literary criticism--a case could be made that it is in fact the imperative task of criticism--book reviews of fiction have for decades been primarily a sub-genre of reporting. As Matthew Davis puts it in a recent discussion of Martin Amis's early years as a reviewer, for newspaper editors the book review "could be taken as one of the functions of reporting on all aspects of current affairs." Indeed, the full-length review (1,000 words or more) of single titles is almost entirely a product of the modern newspaper and the few magazines that "covered" books on a regular basis.
Since few book reviews do little more than recount plot and pronounce summary judgment, those that either manage to do more than that, or that manage to expoit the conventions of the book review particularly well, are really the only ones worth considering as contributions to literary criticism. (That these conventions usually make book reviews into a slightly more elevated version of the book report accounts, in my view, for the fact that most of the books reviewed in print publications are conventional, plot-bound novels. Innovative, adventurous fiction often resists plot summary, and thus such fiction is either ignored or regarded with palpable disdain.) Although the insights provided by even the best newspaper book reviews are still filtered through the listless idiom of the book review "craft," sometimes they can actually employ that craft to provide intelligent commentary.
Recently Heller McAlpin reviewed John Updike's My Father's Tears for the Christian Science Monitor. Although restricted to 750 words, her review nevertheless manages to convey both her sense of the value of this posthumous volume and to locate its stories in the broader context of Updike's work in general and of his late work in particular. Although I ultimately think her focusing concept of Updike's fiction as providing an account of "what it is to be an educated, thinking, feeling – and, finally, aging – northeastern American male in the latter half of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st" is much too narrow in capturing Updike's accomplishment as a writer--he's much less a conventional realist than many readers and critics seem to think he is--McAlpin's review nonetheless cogently organizes itself around the thesis that, as she puts it later in the review, the "overarching theme of Updike’s last stories is the family diaspora that is a natural but painful passage of man – a dispersal whose final stage is death but whose most effective antidote is memory."
While she may have partly been forced to do so by necessity, McAlpin is still wise to limit her discussion of the individual stories included in My Father's Tears to just four, using them to get at the thematic continuity of the book. Too many reviews of short story collections essentially just list the included stories and offer a synopsis or brief observation, substituting the naming of titles for analysis. McAlpin effectively uses the final story, the first story, the title story, and a fourth story that is representative of others to frame her discussion of the volume's merits and to give the reader an informed sense of how the stories work together. This emphasis on the broad commonalities among the stories potentially helps the reader to fruitfully approach the book far more than a series of plot summaries.
In this review, McAlpin manages to turn the limitations of the newspaper book review--its brevity and its appeal to "consumer service"--into a benefit. She succinctly indicates the nature of the stories to be found in My Father's Tears and just as succinctly links these stories to Updike's previous work. This has the effect of clearing away the detritus surrounding Updike's fiction as it has been received in the final years of his career and bringing readers back to the constant concerns--at least in terms of theme and subject--that have animated Updike's work for fifty years and that are duly updated in what turns out to be his final book.
Unfortunately, in her review of Colm Toibin's Brooklyn, McAlpin succumbs to the vices encouraged by most newspaper book reviews. The review begins by stating what appears to be a thesis--that the novel is "an enormously absorbing, nuanced read that steeps us in its character's world - and gradually surprises us with its moral resonance," but which turns out to be just an isolated evaluative statement the rest of the review does not illuminate. Instead, it sticks to straightforward plot summary that is meant, presumably, to certify that Brooklyn is "absorbing," etc. but that really just suggests, at least to me, that this is merely a conventional historical novel about "lost innocence." Brooklyn may indeed be "absorbing," "nuanced," and full of "moral resonance," but McAlpin's review does not show us how or why these things are true of the novel.
That the Toibin review is of a novel while the Updike review considers a collection of stories may partly account for the greater reliance on plot summary in the former (as well might various editorial policies of which we as readers of the review cannot finally be aware), but the temptation to "review" mostly by condensing story and making a few unsupported critical remarks is apparently an inherent feature of journalism-based book reviewing. No one should expect newspaper reviews to evidence rigorous critical thinking, of course--although McAlpin shows in the Updike review she is certainly capable of applying critical insight--but its absence does make it difficult to take seriously the protestations of print reviewers that they are the guardians of literary culture and thus their trade ought not be allowed to disappear.
"Journalism-based reviewing" extends to a publication like the New York Review of Books, which is often cited as a book review that does offer more rigorous criticism. If one were to judge by Michael Dirda's recent review of The Complete Ripley Novels, however, plot summary also seems to be the primary critical method valued by both the reviewer and the editors of NYRB. Dirda makes some attempt to weave in the occasional critical observation ("The hallmark of Patricia Highsmith's work is a calm, hallucinatory intensity built on sentences of unemotional plainness and clarity"), but if anyone is looking to find in his review some critical discernment beyond the usual sort of thing said about Highsmith's fiction (it "probes the fluid nature of identity," is "bleak" and "upsetting"), such is not to be found here. Serial description of the plots of each novel, in chronological order, is.
In my view, this is partly, if not largely, the fault of the Review and its editors. When fiction is discussed in this publication at all--which is rarely more than once or twice an issue--it is often through biographies of writers or omnibus volumes such as The Complete Ripley Novels, and these reviews generally follow the same pattern: rehashing of biographical details combined with superficial observations about the writer's work. The emphasis remains on "reporting" the publication of the book in question, not on providing more penetrating literary criticism.
(When a new work of fiction is reviewed at NYRB, which is even rarer, usually it considers the work of an established writer, seldom is the review allotted as much space as one devoted to nonfiction, and scarcely ever does the review differ significantly from those in other newspaper and magazine book sections. Even Dirda's review is mostly five separate brief reviews piled on top of each other rather than an extended critque.)
Print journalism is fairly quickly being reduced to its core functions of news reporting and analysis, and much of the latter is being siphoned off onto blogs and other websites, especially commentary related to the arts and "culture." Whether the newspaper book review will simply replicate itself online does still remain to be seen, but if it instead fades into literary history, it will be a form of "literary journalism" that won't really be missed.