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The point is pretty simple--to tell people whether a book is any good. Newspaper book reviews aren't the first rough draft of literary criticism; they really are a consumer guide, pragmatic and unintellectual as that sounds. But they're a kind of consumer guide written by the intelligent and curious writer for the intelligent and curious reader.

The state of newspaper book reviews? There aren't enough of them. There aren't enough of them that are sharp and informative and engaging. The shortage springs in part from the limitations of newspaper life, and in part from the limitations of human nature, including the difficulty of writing well.

Sticking to the point of saying whether a book is good or not doesn't mean you're going to be unduly stem with the author. When people ask how to start thinking about a book review, I suggest asking just two questions. First, what were the author's intentions? Then, does he or she succeed or fail? These
questions  make  you stick to what's actually
on the pages and  keeps you from

complaining that the author didn't write the book you think he or she should have. Having done your duty to the author, you're then free to leap on stage and assert what you think about the subject. The best book reviews usually linger to identify and appreciate some essential quality in the book.

The limitations of newspaper life (no time, no space, no money) loom large these days. Like many other ambitions, editors' dreams of a freestanding Sunday book section, with full-page ads from bookstores and publishers, are on hold. In fact, most newspapers have trimmed the space given to book reviews and cut the budget for freelance reviewers.

Tough guy Nelson Algren once described a critic as "someone who has turned assessing the failures of better reasonably humane book editor hates to pay a good reviewer less than $200. to pay a good reviewer less than $200. That pay hardly constitutes a comfortable livelihood, figuring at least a couple of days for reading and a minimum of six hours for writing.

When the budget is halved, the editor may choose to run some wire-service reviews, for which the paper has already paid, rather than cut any freelancer's rate. Prepackaged reviews make the editor's job easier, but running a wire review reduces the number of opinions abroad in the world and lessens a book's chances of finding an appreciative reviewer. Wire-Service stars Jonathan Yardley and Richard Eder are good, but they're not infallible.

Going by placement in the paper, it's clear that book sections are not seen as sexy or glamorous, or even moderately attractive. Only the The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times have separate Sunday book sections. The San Francisco Chronicle's reviews get the cover and first pages of a Sunday section including art and music, while The Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe and Miami Herald tuck books into a Sunday arts section. The Philadelphia Inquirer once had a separate tabloid book section, albeit shared with gardening and numismatics. Now The Inquirer's book reviews are folded into a broadsheet with architecture, art, and music--what editors consider the less appealing arts.

Instead of being treated as something dusty, dry and good for you, book reviews should share space with reviews of movies, popular music and theater. Why is it we don't think this way: Reading--another fun thing to do over the weekend. The bookstore--an alternative to the multiplex cinema. Books--an important expression of our culture and the most important part of entertainment coverage for the intellectually curious.

The eternal pressure to stay on top of the news sometimes turns book reviewing into a grind and mitigates against good writing. This is not merely a matter of having to cover the Hot Book fast so you don't look dead in the water because your paper's review appears a month after The Times's opinion has been quoted in ads. There's a practical factor to consider--the review has to be published near the book's publication date, so the book will be on sale when the newspaper reader goes looking .

As in other newspaper realms, the pressure to be timely makes it hard for a book editor to stop and step back and look at the big picture. When editors make the effort to get some perspective into the book pages, the results can be wonderful. Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World assistant editor, recently reviewed the Bible, answering the question: Is the Good Book any good?

A 4,000-Word Review Of Alexander Pope

At The San Jose Mercury News, I ran a ruminative and witty 4,000-word review of a biography of Alexander Pope. The piece stretched across four tabloid pages, and it was not easy to get graphically thrilling art to break up the blocks of print. The review was the result not of my editing genius, but of the admirable stubborness of the reviewer, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Carolyn Kizer. (A friend at the paper suggested I could get anything by Kizer into the section, no matter what length, as long as the signature line read, "Carolyn Kizer, like The San Jose Mercury News, has won a Pulitzer Prize. ") My knuckles were sharply rapped by three tiers of editors, until an unprecedentedly large number of uniformly appreciative letters rolled in.

Whatever the innovations of other papers, the overwhelming reality of the newspaper book world is the predominance of The New York Times Book Review. The Times Book Review is bigger, better staffed and more important to the publishing industry than any other book section. It has nine full-time editors, six copy editors and two part-time editors compared to The Washington Post's staff of six editors and The Los Angeles Times Book Review's four (including two part-time) and most mid-sized papers staff of one. There are nearly 50,000 books published every year. (Compare this to about 100 major movies. Few movies go unreviewed; four-fifths of the books published are ignored.) The editor of the one-person section can't do more than skim the book, get an impression as to whether it's worth reviewing, and make a fast judgment about which reviewer is going to click.

For any book editor, it's tempting to take the path of least resistance. It's always easier not to push yourself to assign and edit imaginatively, though that might result in a great review.

Some Times Reviews Sound the Same

This seems to happen at The New York Times as well as at the one-person sections. People have stopped reading Michiko Kakutani, The Times's undeniably talented daily reviewer, because she seems to be reviewing the same book over and over. Someone keeps giving her sensitive 214-page novels that she almost invariably describes as "luminous" and "spare." Meanwhile Times workhorse Herbert Mitgang keeps getting all the 897-page biographies of World War Il generals or New Deal cabinet members. The third member of The Times daily reviewing team, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, plays utility infield, covering Elmore Leonard, computer books, atlases, biographies of quarterbacks. No Times editor ever seems to say to Mitgang, "How about something lean and spare and sensitive, Herb?" And, apparently no editor ever says, "Kakutani, don't you think you've done a few too many luminous novels in a row? Next week, how about a history of the American League and the new Harry Crews?"

There are some false ideas abroad about the effect of human nature on book reviews. Book editors aren't out to destroy authors. The book editor's greatest dream is to discover the next Amy Tan or Louise Erdrich, the new Philip Roth. A good book is news. Despite the popular view of critics as ogres, reviews run about four favorable to one negative. Most novelists will return a book rather than write a negative review of another novelist's work. Reviewers err on the side of kindness, especially when dealing with local authors or publishers.

In 1985 the Los Angeles Times media critic, David Shaw, tracked down and effectively dispelled some conspiracy theories about bad reviews. Book editors, if anything, are more sensitive now to producing a fair review. Every editor asks a potential reviewer, "are you a friend or enemy of the author?" Still, the publicity director, the publishing house editor and, above all, the author have a tendency not to be able to see a bad review as simply a bad review. For reasons of self-protection that are understandable, they're very willing to interpret a negative opinion in a conspiratorial way.

Negative can have its uses. identifying the bad books is a way of honoring the good ones. Sometimes a bad book can elicit a wonderful review. The best review of the last decade was Carolyn See's reaction to Kitty Kelley's Nancy Reagan biography. It was humane, forgiving and funny. Sometimes The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal gives Spy editor Joe Queenan a Robin Cook medical thriller or a Gary Jennings historical novel and the result is extremely funny. The New York Review of Books produced the mother of all brilliantly negative reviews by assigning Gore Vidal to write a review covering every book on the fiction bestseller list.

Newspaper critics have a special problem that literary critics don't have. What do you do when someone who works for your paper writes a book? The review is compromised from the start. Run a negative review and, no matter how fair it is, some colleague will snub you in the cafeteria. Imagine being the book editor at The Washington Post and seeing in the fall publishing catalogs news of books by Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, David Ignatius and Sally Quinn. (Meanwhile, you know that Katharine Graham is at work on an autobiography.)

One solution is to print a neutral announcement that this book by a staffer is about to appear and here's what it's about. A fair solution, but it doesn't make for fascinating reading.

Constance Casey, Nieman '89, reviews books regularly (a few times a month) for The Los Angeles Times, and now and then for The San Jose Mercury News, The Washington Post and The New York Times. She is a senior editor at Pacific News Service in San Francisco. Casey, who graduated from Barnard College, edited the book section of The San Jose Mercury News from 1983-1991, and was a director of the National Book Critics Circle.

The most important pressure to resist is from the author and the publisher. It's not that the parties with plastic glasses of chardonnay and little cheese cubes on toothpicks are so seductive, but that book reviewers tend to recognize how much work it is to write a book and lean toward rewarding the effort.

The most intractable factor in limiting the number of sharp, informative and engaging reviews in the newspaper book pages, is that it's hard to write well. For one thing, it takes a lot of nerve. To be interesting, the reviewer needs to speak with authority. There's a common and mostly unjustified fear that reviewers are poised to use the review as an opportunity to spout off about their own interests and knowledge. Outside of The New York Review of Books, those reviews are in the minority.

The toughest challenge for the reviewer's authority is to judge a novel or a collection of short stories. Reviewers often struggle to summarize every story, when they should discuss a couple and then identify an essential characteristic in the book. Every editor is always looking for a good fiction reviewer.

Given the limits of newspaper life and human nature, I still wonder why there aren't more strong critical voices. Why isn't there a book critic with the talent and influence of the Time magazine art critic, Robert Hughes? Some days I go along with George Orwell's opinion of book reviewing--"a quite exceptionally thankless, irritating and exhausting job" in which the reviewer is "pouring his spirit down the drain, half a pint at a time." More often I think that reviewing is as much an art as writing a book. It's a half a pint at a time and you don't get much fame or money from it, but you still fulfill the purpose of writing. Here the last word goes to Samuel Johnson. "The only end of writing is to enable the reader better to enjoy life or better to endure it."
COPYRIGHT 1992 Harvard University, Nieman Foundation
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Title Annotation:newspaper book reviews
Author:Casey, Constance
Publication:Nieman Reports
Date:Sep 22, 1992
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