the complete review Quarterly
Volume II, Issue 2   --   May, 2001

Withering Reviews
Where have all the book reviews gone ?

an editorial essay
at the
complete review Quarterly

       The venerable The New York Times Book Review has a section titled "Books in Brief". Until recently this was a two-page section that, most weeks, provided brief reviews of five non-fiction titles and five fiction (and, occasionally, poetry) titles. A few weeks a year the two-page spread was devoted to brief reviews of other types of books: university press publications or, absurdly, books on baseball, for example.
       In the 1 April 2001 edition of The New York Times Book Review a small note at the end of the "Books in Brief" section -- which consisted of only a single, rather than the usual two pages -- read as follows:
Beginning today, brief reviews of non-fiction and fiction books will appear on alternate Sundays in Books in Brief.
       We at the complete review can take a good joke as well as anyone. This one seemed a bit over the top -- to think that the largely eviscerated and toothless grande-dame of popular book reviewing would cut back its coverage even further was too preposterous to even consider --, but we laughed quite heartily at the ridiculous idea. Given that the announcement was made on 1 April -- well, what else could one think but that it was an April Fool's joke ?
       Of course, as usual, the joke was on us -- and on the reading public. The "Books in Brief" section has, indeed, been halved (one page weekly, instead of two -- though now six briefer reviews are crammed into the space previously devoted to five), and every other week it is devoted entirely to non-fiction works. As to fiction ... well, those brief reviews will apparently appear on some occasional basis. Despite the claim in the short note ("brief reviews of (...) fiction will appear on alternate Sundays"), the first alternate went by without a fiction review in sight. Instead, readers were treated to brief poetry reviews. Admirable, too, but not what readers had been promised. Ah well, if you get screwed, you might as well get lied to too.
       In the "Business Day" section of The New York Times of 23 April 2001 Felicity Barringer reports on this and similar cutbacks in an article titled "Newspaper Budget Cuts Pinch Book Pages". Apparently, the "Books in Brief" cuts were "part of more than two pages of space reductions." Charles McGrath, editor of The New York Times Book Review, was apparently not pleased by the cuts (but also, apparently, powerless to stop them):
"Of all the cuts, the one I mind most is the briefs," he said. "What you're losing is the debut short-story collection, the first novel. You're losing the ability to spot someone at the very beginning of a career."
       (It's not quite clear why these books can't be covered elsewhere -- in full length reviews, for example -- but what do we know ?)
       Ms. Barringer's article reports distressing news from elsewhere as well:
At The Seattle Times, the number of reviews has been cut by two-thirds. (...) At The Boston Globe, the stand-alone book section is not expected to be stand-alone much longer. (...) At The San Jose Mercury News, space for book reviews has just been cut a third.
       And The San Francisco Chronicle editor Phil Bronstein said "there would be fewer reviews but more commentary on literature." ('Commentary' ? Just what the world needs !)
       The reasoning behind the drastic cuts ? Cost-savings, for one. Though given how well newspapers (and especially The New York Times) are currently doing it seems an odd time to cut back -- and leads one to worry about what will happen when they really hit a rough patch. (Wasting huge amounts of money on unprofitable online ventures certainly hurt the bottom line, and there have been cutbacks there as well, but apparently some of the price of e-commercial hubris and incompetence must, for unfathomable reasons, be exacted from the book reviewing sections.)
       There is also reader indifference -- what do a couple more or fewer books briefly discussed really matter ? While the small core of book review readers mourn the loss, most newspaper purchasers apparently don't much care. And the number of subscribers who cancel their subscription because a few less reviews are available ... well, that will probably be a very small number.
       Why should readers be concerned ? For one: potential readers like some guidance in determining what books to read. They want to be made aware of interesting new (and old) publications. Publishers' publicity focusses almost exclusively on mass-market titles (though niche titles are advertised in niche publications), and so reviews are a major way of discovering other titles that might be of interest. Book reviews also offer potential readers some guidance as to the quality of a book -- though one hopes that readers understand that reviews are pieces of opinion and thus hardly to be trusted.
       Why should the general public be concerned ? For all the usual reasons: fostering culture, diversity of opinion, the arts. Book reviews spread information, provide fodder for cocktail party talk, suggest topics of importance that one otherwise might not be aware of. They are not the most important, essential information, but they make for useful background noise, and for something to build on. Like the editorial pages in newspapers they can be safely ignored, but readers can and should take comfort in the knowledge that they exist. When they exist.
       Information about books is hard to come by. If one knows exactly what one is looking for, then of course it is fairly easy. On the Internet alone one has access to online bookstores, publishers' and authors' websites, occasionally even websites devoted specifically to one title, all offering an abundance of at least some sort of 'information'. But one of the great things about book review sections and magazines is that one comes across information about titles one never knew existed, or titles one had not considered in the proper light. The Sunday supplements, like the weeklies and quarterlies with more extensive book sections, provide an invaluable service in bringing these titles (and many more) to the attention of readers.
       Except, of course, that they don't really seem to be doing it as well any more.

       Many complain about the dismal state of book publishing in the United States, an industry dominated by a few (and often foreign-owned) media conglomerates. The state of book reviewing is, however, much sadder. The largest newsweeklies have almost completely abandoned the reviewing game, and few of the weekend newspaper review sections provide much book coverage.
       As in publishing, there are powerhouse independents that are exceptions to the rule: The New Republic and other smaller circulation weeklies often provide good and extensive reviews of selected titles, and The New York Review of Books is devoted almost entirely to book reviewing. Quarterlies such as World Literature Today and the Review of Contemporary Fiction, among others, offer a variety of neat, informative reviews of significant publications. All these, however, only reach (and appeal to) limited audiences -- and only review a fairly small number of books. (There are, of course, also the influential industry magazines with large numbers of brief reviews -- Publishers Weekly and the like -- but these are almost exclusively read by trade insiders.)
       The Internet also provides access to book review information: Yahoo ! lists over 150 sites offering book reviews, and the Open Directory some 250. Again, most of these reach only a small, select audience (and have a fairly small, select selection of reviews). Disappointingly, a number of these have also recently closed, most, surprisingly (given how inexpensive it is to maintain an existing archive on the Internet), taking their reviews with them: Neonlit (Time Out's online book section), The Charlotte Austin Review ("now shut down permanently", as of 6 April 2001), and Atu XVIII are just a few who recently closed shop.

       In the end -- at least for now -- the ones that count in the book reviewing game are the really big players, and in the United States there is still none bigger (as far as newspaper and periodical book review coverage goes -- the Oprah-phenomenon is another matter completely) than The New York Times Book Review. It is the dominant player in the field, by far the most influential, and the most widely read. It is also, still, by far the best: few weekly supplements can compare, in quality or quantity of coverage, and most are quite feeble in comparison. It is the leader of the pack and, one fears, also a bellwether of book reviewing. 'If they can cut back, so can we', is probably being whispered in editorial offices all across the nation.
       The "Books in Brief" fiasco -- and that is what it is -- is, unfortunately, not the only disappointment currently found at The New York Times Book Review. One still finds fine reviews there, certainly ones by 'name' reviewers. Many significant new titles are reviewed, some fairly extensively. But the Book Review is also often tame, pedestrian, provincial, and limited both in its outlook and in the number of books covered.
       Immensely annoyed by the brutal cut of the "Books in Brief" section, the complete review Quarterly took a closer look at the first four issues of the Book Review after this policy was put in place (the issues of 1, 8, 15, and 22 April 2001). Two points are striking: one is the focus on non-fiction titles. The other is the almost complete absence of any titles originally published in a foreign language. (Note that reviews of children's books were not included in any aspect of this survey.)
       In recent years the Book Review has come to look more and more like it was 'The New York Times Non-Fiction Book Review'. Some weeks the domination is absolutely staggering: the issue of 8 April has 13 full-length reviews of 14 non-fiction titles, as well as brief reviews of six additional non-fiction titles. In the same issue there were reviews of only four (!) fiction titles and one volume of poetry.
       In the four April issues considered there were:        This follows the general trend of relegating fiction to secondary status. (Note also that on each of the four covers three reviews are highlighted: on three covers two of the mentions refer to reviews of non-fiction titles and one to a fiction title, on the fourth cover (1 April) all three mentions refer to non-fiction titles. Total mentions: nine reviews of non-fiction works, three reviews of fiction works. That's a healthy ratio ?) Possibly there is less good fiction out there to review, but considering the small sliver of worthy titles that are, in fact, covered it seems more likely that the Book Review takes a limited amount of space and apportions it as it thinks is right -- with a strong emphasis on non-fiction.
       That the Book Review is satisfied with the commonplace is all the more evident in its attitude towards foreign-language literature -- and, indeed, foreign writing in general. Of the 102 books under review in the four issues examined only four (!) were originally written in a foreign language. Two are non-fiction titles (each of which received a full-length review) -- though note that one of these, Our Word is our Weapon by 'Subcommandante' Marcos (reviewed 8 April, by Tim Golden), is nowhere identified as having been originally written in a foreign language, nor is any mention made of a translator (not even in the heading giving the book-information). One briefly-reviewed fiction title was translated from the French -- and one (Boccaccio's Famous Women) from the Latin (and the text under review is actually presented bilingually). All of the crime and poetry titles were written in English.
       The Boccaccio review is, of course, exactly the unusual type of book one hopes to learn about in a book review section -- though it is certainly on the esoteric side. But that the only other foreign-language 'literature' deemed worthy of reviewing is Jean-Christophe Rufin's historical saga, The Siege of Isfahan is ridiculous. (Note that in the review of Rufin's work (1 April, by Paula Friedman) there is also no mention -- not even a hint -- that the book was originally written in a foreign language (or what that language was or who translated the book).) It is as though the Book Review is scared to scare off readers by even acknowledging the terrible possibility that a book might not originally have been written in English. And this from a worldly newspaper situated in cosmopolitan New York.)

       The complete review is, of course, also a book review forum -- though of a completely different order of magnitude than the Book Review. We reach a fraction of the audience, provide a fraction of the reviews -- and probably gross less in a year than the lowest-paid employee at the Book Review takes home in a week. Nevertheless, we'd like to point out that over the same time period (1-22 April 2001) we reviewed 16 titles, of which three were non-fiction and 13 were fiction (we acknowledge a firm (if possibly misguided) conviction that fiction is far more significant than non-fiction). One of the three non-fiction titles was originally in a foreign language, while five of the fiction titles were (and one of these has not yet been translated into English).
       The complete review is, admittedly, idiosyncratic in the books it chooses to review. And just because we provide information about international titles, with a strong emphasis on the literary, doesn't mean others have to or should. Nevertheless, the lack of awareness of and receptivity to specifically foreign works, and literature in general found at other book review fora (and especially the mainstream ones reaching large audiences), seems most unfortunate. Literary culture needs to be fostered, and instead mainstream book reviewing fora seem to be doing their damnedest to undermine it.

       It is not merely some vague, distant danger that very good and important works might be overlooked by the book reviewing world, it is already a reality. The list of ignored but worthy titles is immense, but we'll give two recent examples: Irmtraud Morgner's The Life and Adventures of Trobadora Beatrice as Chronicled by Her Minstrel Laura and Amélie Nothomb's Loving Sabotage.
       Morgner's book was first published in German in 1974. It is acknowledged as one of the most significant novels written in East Germany, as well as as an important 'feminist' fiction. It is also a very entertaining, clever novel (see our reviews: at the complete review and cr Quarterly). It has been in print in Germany since its publication. It was finally translated into English and published by the University of Nebraska Press in the summer of 2000. As of the end of April, 2001 the only two publications (other than ours) that had reviewed it were Choice and Kirkus. No mainstream publication had made any mention of it. Nor, apparently, had any specialist publications (or online review fora) other than those mentioned above.
       Amélie Nothomb's Loving Sabotage was an award-winning bestseller in France, where it was first published in 1993. It is an exceptional novel (see our reviews: at the complete review and cr Quarterly). It was published in an English translation by New Directions in the fall of 2000. As of the end of April, 2001 it had only been reviewed in Publishers Weekly and a few small or regional publications (as well as on our site). Apparently no mainstream publication had made any mention of it.
       Both these texts deserve some attention. In fact, they deserve considerable attention, and many readers.
       Morgner is a basically unknown quantity in the United States (this is her first book to be translated into English). The historical significance of this work alone justifies some attention, but it is actually also a marvelous and very entertaining read. Members of the American public, however, -- at least those who aren't devoted fans of the complete review (and there aren't all that many of you) -- are unlikely to ever learn about it, or even be aware of its existence.
       Nothomb is somewhat better known. Henry Holt brought out another of her novels in 1998 (The Stranger Next Door, translated by Carol Volk (see our review)), and in the spring of 2001 St.Martin's published her Fear and Trembling, translated by Adriana Hunter (see our review). Both these titles were reviewed in the popular media -- indeed, The New York Times Book Review reviewed them both. Not so Loving Sabotage, despite the fact that it is Nothomb's finest achievement, a small gem against which these other two titles are almost pedestrian.
       The Stranger Next Door, the first of her books to be translated perhaps wasn't all that memorable. Even the generally thorough Publishers Weekly, which has given all three of her titles good notices, quickly forgot about The Stranger Next Door. In their review they wrote of it: "Nothomb's American debut should win her the respect (if not the love) of readers who aren't already dreaming of their own year in Provence" (PW, 27 October 1997). Apparently not: in their 2001 review of Fear and Trembling they referred to the 2000 publication Loving Sabotage as her "American debut" (PW, 15 January 2001).
       Still, book reviewers did take up Fear and Trembling -- among the others that have reviewed it are, for example, the book section of The Los Angeles Times and even the Wall Street Journal. But Loving Sabotage got lost in the shuffle. Perhaps smaller independent publisher New Directions (with -- dare we say it ? -- a more literary list than Holt or St.Martin's) isn't taken quite as seriously (perhaps because they are too serious ?) Or perhaps, given the limited space allocated to reviews, there just wasn't space for this one too.
       Certainly one can't expect all the book reviewing fora out there to have reviewed these two particular books (Loving Sabotage and The Life and Adventures of Trobadora Beatrice (...)). It is perfectly (well, almost) understandable that even The New York Times Book Review not cover them. What is incomprehensible is that no one covered them. No one. (Sorry, Publishers Weekly and the like, as well as our humble site don't really count). The fact that two such books can both be completely and utterly overlooked and ignored suggests that there is something deeply wrong with the book reviewing world as it stands.

       Perhaps the books by Morgner and Nothomb are the exception, not the rule. Perhaps all the other worthy foreign and English-language titles do get at least some coverage in at least some mainstream publications. Looking around -- desperately, in all directions -- it doesn't appear that way to us. There is some decent coverage out there -- led, largely (though not solely), by The New York Times Book Review -- but a large number of worthy titles continue to be overlooked and ignored.
       It is an enormous problem. Tiny boutique review sites such as the complete review help fill some of the void, but it is not the same thing. We are a blip on the book-reviewing scene, peripheral, idiosyncratic, and largely inconsequential. It is the big players that have to do their part. Cutting back coverage, even in the easily overlooked "Books in Brief" section, is more than counter-productive. It is an affront to the reading public, and a huge disappointment.

       The centerfold of The New York Times Book Review of 22 April 2001 is a two-page, full colour advertisement. Almost understandably there is always room to be found for advertising -- even when there is none for "Books in Brief" or additional reviews. Advertising pays the bills and makes for profits, while reviews obviously don't. (Though some token reviews have to be included, otherwise one is unlikely to get the readers (meaning circulation) necessary to sell the advertising-space.)
       The centerfold-advert is for a book: Lone Eagle, by Danielle Steel.
       We don't wish to disparage the writing of Ms. Steel, with which we are largely unfamiliar (a paragraph or two were enough for us, thank you), but she is an author who is, in fact, also not widely reviewed. (The complete review is not planning on reviewing this particular title, and we feel fairly (though admittedly no longer entirely) confident in predicting that The New York Times Book Review and most mainstream publications with any literary pretensions will skip it too.) Nevertheless, Ms. Steel is also an immensely popular author, reaching a large audience -- larger, in fact, than practically all the books that are generally reviewed in the Book Review and similar publications.
       Readers can draw their own conclusions from the splashy two-page spread. Do the publishers believe that this is the type of book that actually appeals to readers of The New York Times Book Review (rather than, say, Boccaccio's Famous Women, reviewed, in neat contrast, in the same issue) ? Are the publishers merely flattering their popular author's ego ? Or is this a warning of things to come, a preview of the direction in which this leading popular book reviewing forum is heading (and presumably taking all the others along with them) ?
       In the 8 July 1945 issue of The New York Times Book Review the full-page, front-page review is of Hermann Broch's The Death of Virgil (see our review), a dense, poetic, literary novel originally written in a foreign language. Marguerite Young wrote in her review: "In the wide reaches of the American nation there must be surely many readers who will appreciate the immensity of an adventure story such as this. It should be a corrective to our fundamentalism, our departmentalism." Apparently not.
       Times do change. Book review sections must adapt to the changing times. The current contortions, however, feeding rather than fighting that tired old fundamentalism and departmentalism seem to take things too far.

       Whither hope ?
       The New York Times Book Review, even with wings (only temporarily, one hopes) clipped, may still recover from its current tailspin. Adequate large-scale book reviewing of significant and interesting works, aimed at a broad audience, elsewhere in the United States ... well, one hopes that matters will, eventually improve.
       The Internet offers a few glimpses of what can be done: the British BooksUnlimited, combining the book coverage of The Guardian and The Observer is exemplary. Even The New York Times Book Review's online presence, with its wonderful, huge archive, is a marvel (except, of course, for the fact that you have to register to use it, which is unacceptable). Foreign coverage of books -- for example at the unlikely Neue Zürcher Zeitung -- shows that even relatively small newspapers can support serious and fairly extensive literary coverage.

       We hope that pages will be added to book review sections, rather than taken away. That deserving fiction will be extensively covered, even if it was written in a foreign language or published by a publisher that isn't owned by an enormous media conglomerate. That people will clamour for more far-reaching book review sections.
       Of course, we realize that we're much more likely to find yet another small note next April Fool's day, informing us of yet another radical cut in book review coverage (if they bother to mention it at all).

       Not that it will help much, but do write to The New York Times Book Review (or your local newspaper's weekend book review supplement) and let them know what you think. And, if you really think you have to tell us how wrong we are, you can always write to us -- but remember that we are a tiny outfit, and that we would probably be serving you better by allocating our miniscule resources towards adding more reviews to our site rather than dealing with your e-mail.

       Postscripts - The New York Times Book Review updates:
       The 29 April issue of The New York Times Book Review includes a somewhat better balance of 9 full-length reviews of non-fiction titles, 11 reviews of fiction titles (5 full-length reviews and 6 brief ones), and 3 brief reviews of science fiction titles. Two titles are mentioned on the cover -- both are non-fiction titles. And titles originally written in a foreign language ? Again: merely one (out of 23 books reviewed) -- a briefly reviewed fiction title. And note that Danielle Steel's Lone Eagle debuted at number 3 on the bestseller list in this issue .....

       Maybe April was just a really bad month ? The 6 May issue of The New York Times Book Review is nicely fattened to 39 pages (compared to 27 the previous week) and offers reviews of 33 titles -- more than one of which was actually originally written in a foreign language. The non-fiction focus still seems too great, but at least there is a healthy serving of fiction reviews as well: there are 16 non-fiction reviews (10 full-length and 6 brief ones), 11 full-length reviews of 12 fiction titles, and five brief 'Crime' reviews. Four titles get mentions on the cover, one of which (the one that is barely legible) does refer to a review of a fiction title.
       Impressively (well, relatively speaking), there are two reviews (both full-length, no less) that cover books originally written in foreign languages -- one non-fiction and one fiction review. The fiction review -- double your pleasure -- is of two books by Javier Marías. Never mind that one of them (A Heart so White) was originally published in both Britain and the US in 1995 (and reviewed, in 1996, by the Boston Globe and The Washington Post, among others) -- better late than never, after all. Never mind that the other one (Dark Back of Time -- see also our review) isn't available in your local bookstores (the official release date, last we heard , was 14 May, but lists it as only being available in June) -- better early than never, after all (though The New York Times Book Review is usually pretty good about holding reviews back until the book is actually available). Never mind that if you were going to pair a review of Dark Back of Time with any other book by Javier Marías you would pair it with All Souls ("that novel is also good background reading for Dark Back of Time" Wendy Lesser even suggests in her review, in something of an understatement) -- especially if you have not previously reviewed All Souls (and the Book Review apparently never did review this title). No, readers should be grateful for any reviews of foreign language literature they can get -- and getting three such books (out of 33 titles reviewed) is quite a bonanza.
       Other points of note:
       - One additional title (Outcast, by José Latour) almost counts as foreign-language literature: Mr. Latour is apparently a Cuban author who generally writes in Spanish but penned this work in English.
       - The 6 May issue is also the dreaded (or, perhaps, somewhere, much-loved and feverishly anticipated) "baseball" issue. So you can find reviews of nine (!) baseball titles (three full-length reviews, six brief ones). Compared to two reviews of three foreign-language titles .....
       - Danielle Steel's Lone Eagle is number two on the The New York Times Book Review Best Sellers list


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