Arthur Krystal believes that the "not-so-hidden secret" of book reviewing is that reviewers "regard other people's books as an opportunity to enhance their own reputations," are tempted to "reinforce their own wit, erudition, and verbal artistry" by "debunk[ing] someone else's."
I find this charge, especially as applied to the reviewing of fiction, rather astonishing. My perception is that reviews of new fiction in too many publications are deferential and hesitant to criticize, except in the most inoffensive and formulaic way ("If I have one reservation, it is that. . ."). Book review pages often seem to me more like an adjunct of book publicity than a forum for honest literary criticism.
Krystal assumes, and I have to say that his assumption seems predominantly correct, that most reviews are being written by other writers who have at least some motivation to call attention to their own work through reviewing. In my opinion, however, this mostly manifests itself in reviews full of praise for the fellow writer under review, as if the reviewer wants to signal he/she is a member in good standing of the writer's fraternity and understands his/her new novel will soon be making the rounds of the book review sections and will need the same sort of gentle treatment. And even when the review is positive, as it usually is, vague but colorful descriptions often substitute for analysis "(X's style is like a red-hot poker jabbed at the reader's solar plexus") when plot summary won't quite suffice. Writers' jacket blurbs and their formal book reviews are becoming increasingly hard to distinguish.
The blame for this state of affairs mostly goes to book review editors rather than these writers, however. The latter are being asked to perform a task they are neither prepared for nor temperamentally suited to. They have worked at becoming novelists or poets, not critics, and they understandably want to foster a literary culture in which novelists and poets are valued. The default assumption among editors seems to be that fiction writers and poets are the best judges of fiction and poetry, but this isn't usually the case. Some novelists and poets are indeed also good critics, but in most cases they have become so by fighting against the widespread belief that "creative writing" and criticism are antithetical practices. They reject the notion that criticism is unavoidably "personal," as Krystal claims. They are willing to make justified judgments without worrying about how such judgments might be received by the author or how they might affect book sales.
In my opinion, such judgments are still most reliably made by disinterested literary critics, who have, or should have, even less reason to concern themselves with the transitory effects of honest commentary, as long as that commentary can be supported through careful reading. Krystal says that reviewers are "rendering a service to the reader," which is true enough, but "the reader" ought to include future readers as well, to the extent reviews help determine what works continue to be considered worthwhile, beyond the current season in which books are regarded as commodities in the marketplace. In other words, the reviewer's first obligation, at least where seriously intended literary works are concerned, is to literature. In the long run, reviews are otherwise meaningless.