This article is part of our series on how book reviews are changing. Introduction | The New Review | $$$ | Credibility and the Blog Blurb Question | Bloggers’ Frustrations | Meanwhile, in Consumer Book Reviews
“The inventions of paper and the press have put an end to . . . restraints. They have made every one a writer, and enabled every mind to pour itself into print, and diffuse itself over the whole intellectual world. The consequences are alarming.”
Washington Irving wrote that in 1819. Substitute “the internet and blogs” for “paper and the press” and anyone could have written it in 2009. Similarly, Publishers Weekly ran an article called “The Decline of Book Reviewing” in 1993, 34 years after a Harper’s piece with the same title. The first book reviews appeared at the end of the eighteenth century, and American criticism was already being described as “worse than worthless” by 1833.*
Today, worries about vanishing newspaper book review sections—and vanishing newspapers—have only accelerated the pace of gloomy headlines. But it’s unclear whether a golden age of book reviewing ever existed.
Then again, with the emergence of sophisticated online book reviews, the golden age could be yet to come.
These reviews aren’t like Amazon customer recommendations. “The best advertisement for a book has always been word of mouth,” says Steve Wasserman, Managing Director of the Kneerim & Williams New York office and a former editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review. “The internet only makes more formal the rumor mill that had always served to spread the good news about this or that book. [But] that isn’t exactly criticism, it’s the enthusiastic acclamation of ordinary readers who don’t want to keep the news of something worth reading to themselves.”
“We are seeing a lot more about books on the web, but a lot of that consists of book recommendations,” says Janice Harayda, editor of the site One-Minute Book Reviews and former book editor and critic for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and VP Awards for the National Book Critics Circle. “They’re not true book reviews.” At Harayda’s site, and at the sites of the other bloggers we spoke with, book reviews are considered and thoughtful. “I see promising signs of creative and intellectual life everywhere I turn these days,” says Mark Sarvas, editor of The Elegant Variation and also a reviewer for the New York Times Book Review and the Philadelphia Inquirer. “I think we’re already at the point where the quality of what’s available online matches all but the best print publications.” Jane Ciabattari, NBCC President, agrees: “There is no dearth of passion, no lack of book coverage. I suspect the best approach for publishers is to find individuals with finely honed critical voices and keep them well supplied with advance galleys.” What else can publishers do, and where are book reviews headed?
*The information in the first two paragraphs of this piece is from Gail Pool’s excellent Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America (University of Missouri Press, 2007).