The Intellectual Situation
What’s the matter with book reviews?
The contemporary reader is unhappy. What troubles him? It’s the critics: they are lying to him. He encounters them on the back cover of every new book, promising the world. “An exhilarating debut, poignant and thrilling” . . . “A much-anticipated return, necessary and trenchant” . . . “Dazzling sentences” . . . “An unforgettable voice” . . . “Words that will rend your garments and kiss you on the mouth, that’s how good they are!” The reader trusts the critics. He buys the book. But from page one it is trash: listless, forgettable, unnecessary. He is outraged! He thought false advertising was illegal.
He considers giving the book one star on Goodreads (would you give a lawn mower four stars for being “promising”?), but such overwhelming praise from bright literary lights makes him second-guess his judgment. He opens Twitter. “Is it just me,” he writes, “or does this book suck?”
“It sucks!” someone agrees. “Overhyped [garbage emoji],” says another. A lively exchange is underway when a partisan arrives, here to defend the dignity of the author. It’s only a first novel, he says. It’s chronologically disjointed on purpose. He paraphrases Henry James: We must grant the writer his idea, his subject, what the French call the donnée. “Judge the book he wrote,” concludes the partisan’s thread, “not the book you wish he had written.”
But what about all those critics blowing smoke on the book jacket? our reader asks. Did they read the book?
“Those aren’t real reviews,” says the partisan. “Everybody knows you can’t take them seriously.”
Everybody? thinks our reader. He is stung to learn that he is not “everybody,” which is to say, not anybody.
The partisan’s thread keeps getting longer, more unhinged, as if his mind were fraying. He seems to have a lot of time on his hands — a suspicious amount of time, really . . . is he a friend of the author, or the author himself? The partisan tweets links to what he calls “real reviews.” Our reader receives them with an open mind. He is a reader, after all — a lover of language, ideas, and literature. He clicks; he reads. What he reads confuses him. Why is this review so short, a plain synopsis up until the last line, which offers only the faintest shadow of critique? Why is this one 12,000 words long, and mostly a review of three other novels? A third review seems to be a listicle, featuring the quotes he remembers from the jacket. Is this what passes for criticism today? He could be forgiven for thinking, with some disdain, that the contemporary book critic had one job.
Unfortunately for the reader, the contemporary book critic does not have one job. In fact, she has no jobs. This is a freelance gig.1 The pay? Maybe $250 for a shorter piece or if she’s lucky, $600 or more for something longer. If she’s never been a staff critic (and odds are she hasn’t), and if she cares (and of course she cares!), she will undoubtedly toil for a poor wage-to-labor ratio. For starters, she has to read the book — or books, if she’s assigned more than one to cover in the review. Then there are the author’s previous books, and if she’s really thorough, reviews of the author’s previous books, as well as interviews, early work, and other miscellany. For a 1,200-word review, it could take a week to write, maybe two if she tends to over prepare. For a career survey, or a review essay in one of the big publications, it could take months or a year to finish (and to get paid). Then factor in self-employment taxes, the unreliability of assignments, delays in payment, and cost of living. Before you know it you’re declaring bankruptcy.
The contemporary American book review is first and foremost an audition — for another job, another opportunity, another day in the content mine.Tweet
Drafting will be difficult. After so much reading, research, and annotation, the freelance critic has a lot to say — too much to fit into a six-hundred-word review or a five-thousand-word review essay. So begins the painful work of cutting and condensing, until she’s left with only a few choice quotes and a paragraph or two of analysis; the rest is backstory. But say that isn’t her problem — say she’s given all the space she wants, for an online magazine that has no word limit and pays a flat rate. Bliss, no? No. Pressure still stalks her. No word limit means no excuses: the potentially bottomless page will only make it clearer if she doesn’t have anything to say. She will yank at her hair, break out in hives, write draft after draft in Google Docs (she can’t afford Word) and think, I will never write a book review again. I will never write a book review again . . . But once all that is over, once the direct deposit hits and the link goes up, she will quickly forget. She will share the review on social media with a modesty that belies her efforts (“I wrote about Toni Morrison (!) for Pacific Magazine” or “My 8,000-word essay on autofiction and accountability is now up on Splint”) and watch the encouraging hearts roll in.
It is a feather in her cap. More practically, it is a link on her website: a step, she hopes, toward a less harrowing, more lucrative assignment. She hears that the old print magazines still pay a dollar a word, an excellent rate in today’s market — $5,000! — even if it is the same rate Mary McCarthy made at the same magazines in the 1960s. And so she is happy, until someone tweets something snide. “Do you get paid by the word?” they write, insulting her for going on too long. She knows what they are thinking. You had one job . . .
But she doesn’t have one job. She has no job! Or she has three jobs, or more, depending how you count. She’s a freelancer, jumping from gig to gig. Or she’s writing a book proposal, or toiling away at a novel; nobody is paying her for any of that, not yet. Or she’s an academic stranded in adjunct limbo who needs a plan B. Book reviewing might be a terrible plan B — not a plan at all, really — but at least it lends itself to the skills she spent eight years honing in the library. Neither of her two teaching gigs cover medical, and she can’t cover physical therapy out of pocket; she’s been going since she got doored on her bike while commuting to the seminar she taught part-time, “The Death and Life of the Great American Public Intellectual.” She’s seen just enough academics make the jump to successful critic that she thinks she has a shot. Or she’s looking for an edge, any edge, in the zero-sum game of the academic job market. Book reviews won’t count toward her tenure file for her nonexistent tenure-track job — at best they’re “public service,” at worst they could raise suspicions that she’s not “serious” — but if she plays things right maybe a viral review could lodge her name in the mind of some senior professor who otherwise hasn’t learned a new name in twenty years. Next up: job interview.
What effect does this have on her reviews that make their way to our reader? Put simply, they are not written for him. He may learn a thing or two — glean an insight, absorb an opinion, and draw some conclusion about what he needs to read and what he can get away with pretending to have read. But should he get a niggling sense somewhere in the back of his head that the critic isn’t thinking of him — of the earnest reader, and the limited time and money he has for literature — he will be right. She isn’t thinking of him at all.
The main problem with the book review today is not that its practitioners live in New York, as some contend. It is not that the critics are in cahoots with the authors under review, embroiled in a shadow economy of social obligation and quid pro quo favor trading. The problem is not that book reviews are too mean or too nice, too long or too short, though they may be those things, too. The main problem is that the contemporary American book review is first and foremost an audition — for another job, another opportunity, another day in the content mine, hopefully with better lighting and tools, but at the very least with better pay. What kind of job or opportunity for the reviewer depends on her ambitions.
Reader, behold your gatekeeper, standing by a broken fence in the middle of an open plain.
Let’s say the reviewer is a novelist. She has already published her first novel and another is on the way. One morning she gets an email from an editor at the Major Times Book Review with an intriguing subject line — something like “idea” or “just a thought.” What could it be? Nothing so exciting as all that. So-and-so has a new book out on intergenerational trauma in Appalachia. Our novelist’s debut was about intergenerational trauma in Appalachia, too, and she’s penned some popular opinion pieces about the region, also to sell her book. You would be perfect for it, says the editor. How about 700 words?
She could use the money. She doesn’t know this author personally, so there’s no conflict of interest. The awkwardness of shared terrain can’t be denied, but a review won’t require further research, which is a plus. She can read the book, dash off some thoughts, call it a day. More publicity is always good publicity; a byline might sell some more of her own books, perhaps leading to a bigger advance on her next book. It might even serve a mental-health function, fending off the panic that comes every time her agent neglects to write back, or she fails to add another few hundred words to her manuscript: that her career has stalled, that she hasn’t accomplished enough, that no publisher will buy her next book and everyone — her editor, other writers, her friends — will forget she exists.
She accepts. The editor express mails the galley. It arrives in the type of padded yellow envelope that appears to be insulated with dust bunnies and pulverized newspaper. She opens it over the trash can to avoid the mess, begins to read, then wishes she’d dropped the book in the trash too. It is worse than her own book (a relief, though she’s ashamed to admit it), but worse in a way that’s hard to describe without compromising herself. If she’s frank and writes a pan — especially in the Major Times, the kind of review that used to make or break sales — people will think her cruel, or bitter, or jealous. The writer is young, bright, at the start of a promising career: to go all in would be punching down, the worst look in an age defined by either leaning in or taking down. If she gets a reputation as a nasty old crone, it will be harder to succeed in the more mercenary aspects of her own work: to find a magazine to print an excerpt from the next novel, or to interview her at the bookstore at her launch. Of course, some people would love her if she tore this book to shreds. Harsh reviews in the papers of record are so rare and exciting — a handful of birdseed thrown to the tweeters who swarm in with beating wings — that anyone who does them with a bit of panache is well on her way to making a name as a critic. But she doesn’t want to make a name as a critic. She wants to be a novelist — just like this young, well-meaning writer with no ear whose book she has agreed to review. She doesn’t want to overcompensate in the other direction, go too soft. She couldn’t respect herself if she did that. The rewards of honesty, however, are slim.
After losing several days from her own writing, anxiously weighing the consequences of saying what she actually means, the novelist sits down to write. Her intentions: to give a succinct and accurate description without being merciless or snide. To offer the young writer encouragement but plainly point out her shortcomings, so that no one could accuse her of being ungenerous or ruining anyone’s prospects. To showcase her own sensitivity, perceptiveness, and style — her abilities as a reader and a writer. Yes, it’s been a long time since her last book, and no, she doesn’t have much to show for the time that has elapsed. But she’s still here. She’s still on the scene. She’s a writer. She’s a reader. She’s alive!
Our novelist has written her way out of more difficult situations than this. But she has no skill with compromise. The result: tepid verbiage here, hedged praise there, nothing that would prevent anyone from ever picking up a pen again. It’s not the best review she’s ever written, but she can live with it. She can respect herself, writing what she did: “A tireless, dutiful book whose primary research nevertheless yields fascinating details that make it worth the read.”
A year passes. She is walking past her neighborhood bookstore and sees the young author’s book in the window, now out in paperback. To her horror, she sees, on the front cover, her own words repurposed as praise:
“A . . . book . . . [of] fascinating details . . . Worth the read.” — The Major Times Book Review.
Back to our reader. He gets it, OK? Don’t trust blurbs, reviews, excerpts — really anything with quotation marks around it. He used to spend Sunday mornings with his coffee and his MTBR, reading up on the new novels, but now, enlightened, he sits on his couch with his iPad and surveys his tabs. Alongside the Longreads he bookmarked, and the Reallylongreads recommended to him by a weekly Reallylongreads roundup, there is one Extremelylongread. It’s one of the pieces the partisan tweeted at him. It has 500 retweets, and 2,200 quote tweets, and an unknown number of subtweets, on Twitter.
It is, as promised, an extremely long read, weighing in at more than twelve thousand words. On first skim, our reader doesn’t understand why a review of Roland Luxner’s The Passenger’s Brother spends so much time on novels by Sally Rooney, Ben Lerner, and Rachel Cusk. He reads it again, this time more diligently, convinced that he must have missed some paragraphs about Luxner. Surely they’re in there, somewhere? They are: Command+F yields five Luxners, all about a fifth of the way in, crammed into three short paragraphs. It’s only after the book’s brief mention that the “review” really gets going. The failures, offenses, and excesses of Rooney, Lerner, and Cusk occupy the bulk of the piece — until the final fourth, which seems to be about Christopher Lasch, as well as cancel culture.
Why not write, in other words, for Twitter?Tweet
The reader puts his iPad down. Strangely, this isn’t the first red-herring review he’s encountered. In fact, all the reviews from his Longreads and Reallylongreads have been like this recently, claiming to be about one thing only to be about something else — usually Sally Rooney, Ben Lerner, and Rachel Cusk, along with some kind of cultural crisis. It’s true that these Anglo-American autofictioneers are important writers; perhaps they deserve an important amount of reviewer attention. But unlike the Important Novelists of yesteryear, the Updikes and Roths, they’re sensible: they publish a novel only every few years. Their books are by no means new. Not nearly as new as The Passenger’s Brother. So why are all these critics still so riled up?
Without realizing it, our reader has stumbled upon one of our critical culture’s emergent genres: the Contemporary Themed Review.
What makes a Contemporary Themed Review, or CTR for short, is its emphasis on terms. The CTR addresses books in groups, and by theme: the internet novel, the sanctimony novel, the millennial novel, the #MeToo novel, the climate change novel, the autobiographical novel, the permalance novel. The term is always singular, suggesting both gravity and homogeneity. In foregrounding theme, the CTR begins at its end, announcing its concerns in the opening paragraphs or even in the title, like an undergraduate essay. The journey, the destination, and the origin are one and the same. Any number of books can be combined in a CTR: as with the salesman in the blender commercials, the answer to the question “Will it blend?” is always predetermined. Quotations are scarce, plucked to justify a book’s inclusion. Plot summaries are preferred to quotation, the more readily to be taken literally. Differences between style, narrative, even genre disappear. Readings are deductive rather than inductive — theses in search of evidence.
The CTR has less in common with the literary group review (think “New Books” in Harper’s) than with the review essays of the mid-20th century found in magazines like Partisan Review and Politics. Here are four books by returning GIs, they went, What does this tell us about man, war, and Sartre? Like this tried-and-true form, the CTR sets its sights beyond the humble books under review: it wants to tell us what trends in literature tell us about our time, like a medical diagnosis or a ten-day forecast. But the CTR departs from this tradition of cultural criticism, which was produced by writers who like good Marxists saw the entire point of criticism as drawing connections between literary form and socioeconomic form, and who like good anti-Stalinists took pride in doing so in ways that weren’t completely obvious. (It helped that many were discovering Freud.) This peculiar conjuncture inspired generations of critics with little connection to the debates of the 1930s and 1940s — only seemingly to meet its demise in the 2010s as its most degraded progeny, the counterintuitive take, got canceled along with many of the men who wrote them. You can say this about a CTR: it may be completely wrong, but it’s never not obvious.
How did the CTR arise to replace the old themed review? At the turn of the millennium, as counterintuitive logic moved to the center of intellectual debate (War! It’s the health of the left!) and clickbait primacy (the #Slatepitch), book review sections in magazines and newspapers began to disappear. For all their faults, these outlets reviewed a lot more than a dozen “buzzy” books a year. The reduction in staff critics created a reserve army of literary freelancers who lack the time or job security to review a wide range of books. (A canny freelancer knows that reviews beget reviews, and the most likely way to get her pitch accepted is to write about a book that other people will want to write about — and read about.) Add the dwindling prospects for would-be academics, who coin new terms as if the mint were running out of gold, and the temptations of a thrive-or-perish social media coliseum, and you can see why the CTR comes to prominence. Why read one strange, unknown book closely when you could read five popular titles distantly, round them up in a CTR, and argue that it all points to a conclusion that falls cleanly on one side of the culture wars, inflaming some and delighting others?
Why not write, in other words, for Twitter? Whatever job the CTR writer is auditioning for, she is likely to find it (or it is likely to find her) on Twitter. Web editors especially love CTRs. A CTR including the novel Normal People will never get as much traffic as a Daily Mail article about the relatively unknown actor from the TV adaptation of Normal People, but virality is relative: as long as a CTR pulls big numbers for them, it’s a success. Maybe they’ll hire the critic to write more CTRs. Or maybe they’ll want something else — an op-ed that disposes of the literary pretense altogether. It doesn’t matter. In this industry, who can say no to a steady gig? The CTR critic will accept the post, whether it’s titular or bona fide, contract or W-2. But her eye is on a bigger prize. Next up: book deal.
When our reader finally closes the tab, Sally Rooney isn’t revealed to him anew, much less The Passenger’s Brother. Is this why he reads book reviews? To learn about the same moral panics he reads about everywhere else? Surely not. He sees those panics playing out on Twitter on a daily basis, helpfully unencumbered by novels.
And so the contemporary reader is unhappy. He wants honest reviews of novels; instead he gets hype and a dizzying, outrageous, stultifying profusion of adjectives. He wants serious literary criticism of novels; instead he gets withering assessments of the era in which said novels are written, which, by endlessly discussing the same five novels, only confirm his fears that literature has reached the unsustainably small gene-pool era of its long, slow slide to extinction. The contemporary reviewer is unhappy too: she works too hard, and still everything she does is wrong and insufficiently compensated. Her careful reviews end up reading like stenography, and when she swings for the fences her actual readers — unlike the trigger-happy tweeters — complain that she has swung too far.
Despite all the odds, good reviews are being written in this wretched era, by staff critics and by freelancers. New, technocratic solutions are proposed every day: billionaire funding, paid newsletters, essays crowdfunded on the Ethereum blockchain, a new patronage system funded by NFTs of GIFs. How grim it all seems. We never really wanted to live in the future. Then again, the history of book reviewing is a history of frustration and disappointment. Why should our era be different? At the very least, we should put an end to the misery. Publications of means, adjust your rates for inflation and pay your writers on time. Publications without, we can do better: Just say no to CTRs.
If it isn’t, well, good for her: that means she’s one of an estimated “handful” of staff book reviewers left in the United States. See Phillipa K. Chong, Inside the Critics’ Circle (Princeton University Press, 2020). ↩