Perhaps the most debilitating limitation of the book review, at least as practiced in American newspapers and most magazines, is that too often critical judgment is pronounced in the absence of articulated standards. Underlying assumptions about what makes for a "good novel," and thus assumptions about what makes fiction worthwhile in the first place, are left unstated, even when those assumptions are clearly implicated in the judgment rendered. This is first of all the consequence of the enforced conventions of the form itself, which appear to proscribe explicit discussion of assumed standards, presumably to give reviews a facade of objectivity (as if criteria of judgment are so well known it's only a bother to mention them) and ward off the possibility they might become too "academic." But reviewers also frequently seem all too ready to embrace these conventions and advance conclusions whose premises are allowed to go unexamined.
Two recent reviews illustrate the problem, although one relies on an unstated assumption in order to praise while the other does so to find fault. Ed Champion's Philadelphia Inquirer review of Donald Westlake's Memory wants to commend the novel as "pulp" but as pulp with something else, something identifiably literary. Critics of mystery fiction, Ed mantains, deny that it can deliver "thematic truths and behavioral insight." Westlake's book shows that this objection does not always hold up, since Memory displays "serious thematic concerns."
Of course, the assumption here is that "literary" fiction can properly be defined as that containing "thematic truths and behavioral insight." Granted, Ed is countering what he thinks is a critical dismissal itself bound to this assumption, but the phrasing really seems to be Ed's gloss on the criticisms made of a form of fiction otherwise focused on "plot-oriented puzzles." If it's too heavy on "plot" and "puzzles," it must be too light on "substance," which must mean "theme" or "insight." It's a common enough opposition, but rather than trying to break it down, by, say, making a case that "plot-oriented puzzles" have their own kind of substance, especially in pulp fiction, Ed unfortunately adopts it to his own purposes and in extolling the work of Donald Westlake reinforces the notion that "literature" is equivalent to "theme."
In a review of Jon McGregor's Even the Dogs, Floyd Skloot perpetuates some equally damaging stereotypes, in this case about experimental fiction. According to Skloot, in his dedication to his "experiments with the devices of fiction" McGregor sacrifices "emotional engagement with his characters and story." His devices call attention to themselves, become "showy." His characters lack "sufficient character and depth to distinguish them" and "scenes that should be unbearably emotional. . .fall flat, because we have no visceral connection with the characters." Ultimately the novel fails because the author does not "let us lose ourselves in it."
There is here a virtual taxonomy of the book McGregor should have written but, in the reviewer's opinion, unaccountably did not. This book is pretty clearly a conventional novel full of "emotional engagement" with fully-drawn characters that preserves narrative transparency and allows us to easily suspend our disbelief. These things are what real novels should be doing, and McGregor's novel can't possibly be judged successful simply because it tries to do something else.
The reviewer has every right to prefer his projected shadow-novel, but if he can't be expected to assess the novel he's actually been given to review according to the criteria appropriate to it, either he shouldn't have been assigned the novel to review in the first place or he should be obligated to acknowledge that his standards preclude considering Even the Dog a legitimate novel at all, preclude considering alternative standards for a novel that manifestly demands them, and that the flaws he delineates are really just the markers of his own projection. He might be given the opportunity to defend his standards, and to explain why McGregor's novel should still be subjected to them, but he can't do that if he can't, or won't, declare those standards directly.
Reviews such as these help sustain the illusion that the boundaries of the "literary" are well-known and that the principles of criticism are so well-settled they merely need to be applied consistently. These illusions need to be dispelled, not encouraged, but the protocols of "literary journalism" as it now exists probably aren't going to contribute much to that effort.