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Inside the Critics' Circle
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B : relies too much on the anecdotal, but an interesting look at book reviewing
See our review for fuller assessment.
The complete review's Review:
Inside the Critics' Circle is a look at (fiction) book reviewing, in North America, at the beginning of the twenty-first century. As author Phillipa K. Chong explains in her Introduction:
The goal of the book is to understand how book reviewers undertake the task of reviewing and valuing fiction, and to understand the special factors that influence how reviewers do this work, including the epistemic, social, and institutional uncertainty they face.The heart of the book is based on: "in-depth interviews with forty fiction reviewers who had published a review in at least one of three influential American review outlets".¹ Chong acknowledges this creates an: "elite bias", though more problematic is arguably just how small a pool of respondents this is.² Only a quarter of the subjects have, in fact, at any time, held a "full-time position related to book-reviewing" ("approximately eleven", she notes at one point; "only ten" at another) -- one of the peculiarities of the trade (there are very, very few people whose job is actually solely book reviewing -- with many of those who have held a full-time position related to book-reviewing in fact functioning also or primarily as book review editors). So also, many of her forty are not frequent reviewers -- "perhaps writing only a few reviews in the past year", she suggests -- as, in fact, book reviewing is something which many writers engage in only very occasionally. Regrettably, among the many numbers missing in the study are even such basic ones as the number of reviews written by the respondents over specific periods (one year, five years -- any time); indeed, readers are left with no sense of how much a book reviewer might actually review in a given year, or what the industry-spread (as well as that among her subjects) is.
Chong's focus is on the traditional, broad-audience-seeking book-review -- mainly newspaper reviews: journalistic criticism, with its focus on newly published fiction, differentiated from essayistic criticism (the book coverage in, say The Nation or The New York Review of Books) and academic criticism ("reserved for scholarly publications"). While acknowledging online reviewing -- both "amateur" (blogging hobbyists) and online outlets that publish 'traditional' reviews (often by reviewers who also publish in the print-outlets Chong focuses on) --, Chong barely includes any examination of it in her analysis except at the margins (including two brief studies of 'crossover cases': "in which individuals have made the transition from reviewing on personal blogs to being featured in some of the most prominent and important review media in the Anglophone publishing field"). This book is very much a study of the traditional old guard of book reviewers writing for newspaper (and a few weeklies ...) -- with part of Chong's point and interest being also how the current 'uncertain times' (which includes the down-sizing and outright elimination of so much newspaper book coverage, and the increasing number of online alternatives, amateur and otherwise, to it) affect those involved in it.
(Chong also does not discuss industry-publication book reviews, specifically those in Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews. While primarily intended for the trade, specifically booksellers and librarians, and with a relatively low print circulation, these publications cover far more titles (by orders of magnitude) than any US newspaper; their reviews are also freely accessible online (and generally come up high in search-engine-query results) and often feature in the basic book information provided at Amazon.com and the like and thus actually also are among the reviews that interested readers/consumers are most likely to see (if seeking out book-information). They do differ from traditional newspaper reviews in format -- they're even more succinct -- and, significantly, also in almost all being anonymous/uncredited; while their (ostensible) gatekeeper-role differs from that of newspaper reviews -- their pre-publication reviews are mainly directed at those who stock books in the first place (stores and libraries) --, given their present-day reach, a comparison of reviewers who write these with newspaper book reviewers would be of interest, particularly re. some of the attitudes and concerns Chong finds among the reviewers she interviewed. So, for example, it would be interesting to compare attitudes towards first-time novelists, which her respondents tend to want to give more of a kid-glove treatment to, while PW and Kirkus reviewers seem likely not to factor in what stage of their career an author is in (and instead focus solely on the book, and whether it is worth stocking). Given the significance of these first-on-the-scene reviews, including the extent to which they influence pre-orders (and hence even print runs) and how they contribute to the buzz/anticipation with which these books then enter the market (including also in influencing newspaper-book-review-editors as to what books they will assign for review), some attention to these reviews (and the reviewers behind them) might also have been warranted.)
Chong usefully walks readers through practically the entire book reviewing process (for the journalistic reviews she focuses on), discussing the selection of titles, the selection of reviewers, and then -- with the help of the feedback from her forty respondents -- issues such as how reviewers approach reviewing, including how and why they might treat different books and (especially) authors differently. Missing, however, is almost any meaningful discussion of how the (presumably) intended audience³ of consumers -- readers and potential book-buyers -- reacts and responds to the reviews. If reviewing is in crisis, one imagines the dissatisfaction of the end-user with the product is part of the problem -- but there's essentially no discussion or data about this here.
(Indeed, throughout, Chong too often avoids getting empirical, including relying on related but not necessarily applicable observations and conclusions. She notes, for example, that: "Research in film has shown that amateur reviews contained more informal 'popular' versus 'high-art' evaluative schemas than traditional professional reviews" but offers no evidence that this holds true for book reviews as well (though of course it well might). And already on the first page Chong includes claims such as that: "gaining the attention of reviewers is a first and necessary step to becoming a high-status novelist", but the citation is to a 1983 article, and given the rapid changes in the field -- part of the point of her work -- more up-to-date evidence for this and similar claims as to the actual significance of reviews is surely called for.)
As Chong notes, selecting reviewers for non-fiction books is generally more straightforward -- you want someone with some expertise in the area. As far as fiction -- and Inside the Critics' Circle is specifically focused on fiction-reviewing --, it's not so obvious. Both editors and reviewers offer some examples and explanations here -- whereby it's amusing/disturbing to see how many reviewers(-who-are-also-writers) report being pigeonholed based on their own writing, with editors apparently often falling back on calling on authors who have written similar works of fiction (the zombie-novelist called on to review any novel with a zombie in it, etc.). Beyond that, however, as Chong repeatedly notes, fiction-reviewing is also that odd field where most of the reviewing is done by other writers; as Chong points out, this is not the case in most other fields, including other arts-criticism: film critics generally are not film-makers, art critics are usually not fellow artists, music critics rarely active musicians. It makes for an oddly un-professionalized group -- with, as Chong points out, a very limited sense of belonging to a dedicated-to-this-craft group (the National Book Critics Circle the closest thing to an umbrella-organization). With so many of the reviewers she interviewed also being authors and/or seeing themselves as part of the literary community, many express reservations and concerns about being critical of fellow authors -- kind of a problem in a field one expects honest judgment in.
Among the interesting attitudes Chong finds and explores is that of treating books differently, depending on the author. Many of the reviewers she spoke to don't want to crush young/new authors, with Chong finding that reviewers are much more willing to 'punch up' rather than down: reviewers don't seem to have much of a problem being critical of the latest work by an established (and especially a successful) author that's not up to par -- figuring they (and their reputations) can handle it -- but don't want to contribute to ruining a new author's prospects by crushing their debut.⁴
This can have bizarre consequences. Chong mentions one particularly disturbing one, finding that while reviewers express some concern about a lack of diversity in authors and books that receive review-coverage, they not only rarely pro-actively try to counter that but that some practice actual (and too literal) avoidance:
Specifically, given the belief that women writers get fewer opportunities than men and therefore that any opportunity carries that much more weight, a few critics indicated that they actively abstain from reviewing first books by women to avoid potentially having to write a less than glowing review of a woman author.(This approach, of treating authors at different points in their careers differently, is one of many subjects in the books that it would have been interesting to see explored in greater detail, relying on actual data. My (anecdotal) sense is that debut authors and first novels get a disproportionate (also in the sense of undeserved, based on their quality) amount of attention, even aside from review-coverage: novelty sells, in every respect (i.e. is more likely to get coverage, of the review as well as simple personal-puff sorts). There might be arguably valid reasons for this -- you want to encourage young authors, and give them time to find their own voice, etc. -- though the counter-argument -- weed out the bad as quickly and soon as you can; the true writer will persevere regardless -- tends to get short shrift. The authors that seem (again: just my anecdotal impression -- which is why I wish there were more data here ...) to have it the hardest in the current industry (publishing and book-buying) climate are mid-list authors with a few titles under their belt but without a breakthrough one, and it is their books that would seem to need the most (review-) support and who tend to get too little review-attention.)
Chong looks at what the reviewers she interviewed consider good reviewing practice -- what a book review should do, what the reviewer should focus on, and what they should avoid. Much of this sounds sensible -- the notion that reviews shouldn't just summarize/regurgitate plot, for example, or focus on extra-literary matter (details about the author or the book deal behind the book, etc.). One respondent says: "There's so many [reviews] that I find so disappointing because it feels like a book report", another complains of the: "Wikipedia-model of reviewing". But if these are so common and widespread (and boy are they ever ...), then where are the voices, opinions, and explanations of the reviewers behind those ? What's their feedback ? What are their explanations for taking these lazy approaches ?
That's part of the primary problem with Chong's approach: it's almost entirely anecdotal, with very little empirical follow-through. Chong takes the reviewers by their word -- assuming, perhaps, that with anonymity comes honesty (and apparently not too concerned about self-delusion) -- without even testing the claims. She notes their complaints about poor reviews (like ones where the reviewer gets plot points wrong because they presumably read the book too carelessly and quickly) and concludes the reviewers she spoke with: "avoid practices they perceived to be unfair or otherwise inappropriate when reading reviews of their own work because they did not want to be guilty of the same sins", but there's no suggestion she ever put that claim to the test (i.e. by examining the reviewers' actual reviews for these very flaws).
While outright mistakes can be difficult to spot, many claims are testable -- such as the amount of space devoted to plot-regurgitation, or extraneous/irrelevant information about the author, or just how much the reviewer discussed language or character or whatever else they claim is important in reviewing. So also, for example, Chong notes an apparently widespread attitude of a softer treatment of first-time novelists -- but offers not even a rudimentary counting of such reviews and whether they are indeed gentler or more positive than, say, reviews of bestselling authors. (This is somewhat arduous work, but an aggregator such as Bookmarks, covering many new releases, would fairly easily allow for at least a general testing of this claim.)
Problematically, Chong's respondents' explanations of what they think a book review should offer, and what they (claim to) try to do, do not correspond to a significant number of the book reviews one finds in the publications Chong focuses on in her study; with their complaints about many reviews, her respondents even acknowledge as much. The question of how these reviews come about -- obviously as part of the same system -- is left largely unaddressed; at times, it feels like Chong just found the 'good', dutiful reviewers to talk to, and it would be interesting to hear more from the lazy-ass reviewers who don't really care as much about the craft but are happy to knock out 750 words for whatever pittance they can get (there are a lot of them out there, and a fair number get published in the better-known publications Chong focuses on ...).
While the role of the book-editor is discussed some -- with several of those she spoke to (also) having experience in that role --, the question of reader-expectations from the editorial side is left under-discussed: maybe reviews discuss irrelevant issues (the author's age/sex/looks/notoriety, for example), because that is what newspaper-publishers and editors believe (possibly for good reasons) readers want to know about and are more interested in than, say, the author's use of language. Again, some empirical study of actual reviews, such as how much space is devoted to what information in reviews, would have been invaluable here: what reviewers think/say is important in reviews, and then what actually appears in reviews might prove not to be quite (or at all ...) the same.
Chong's exploration of how reviewers see themselves as part of the literary community is quite fascinating, including (or rather: especially) how it colors their reviewing-practice. The lack of professionalization -- reviewing as a separate, dedicated pursuit -- makes for that (hopeless) intertwining, with reviewers unable to avoid concerns about their relationships with other literary actors -- notably offending authors, agents, and publishers -- in rendering their judgments. Amusing, too, is the observation that the 'hatchet job' -- which tends to attract a great deal more attention than an average review -- can sometimes be seen as a worthwhile professional (as-author, more than as-reviewer) risk to take ......
Among the more interesting questions Chong explores is why those she spoke with engage in book reviewing, and the rewards they find in it. Among the responses are that reviewers find the exercise: "makes my experience with the book much deeper and much more rewarding", or that they're exposed to books they otherwise wouldn't read ("Many reviewers expressed delight at being exposed to new genres and new ideas through the review process") -- good reasons that nevertheless skirt the question some: why do they need the prod of a book-review commission to read better/more in-depth, or to explore books they might not otherwise read ? And while public engagement in the literary community is explored to some extent as a motivation -- wanting people, especially peers, to know what you think of a specific book or author; wanting one's opinion to matter; or wanting simply to be part of the (perceived) conversation -- the remunerative aspect is woefully under-addressed.
It's acknowledged that reviewing doesn't pay well, but, shockingly, Chong doesn't make any attempt at determining just what reviewers are earning; throw-away statements such as one respondent's: "Financially, you're better off working in the 7-Eleven" are just that (though admittedly this is the case for most complainers about being paid too little in a wide variety of occupations; rarely are the comparative numbers actually on offer (and of course it's hardly simply about the bottom-line-dollar amount: a 7-Eleven shift will never be as flexible as writing a book review in the place and time of your choosing, for example)). While Chong explicitly states that few of those she talked to make their livelihood primarily as reviewers, I suspect that the financial rewards -- near-trivial though they are widely reported as being -- matter more than anyone is letting on here. For a writer or academic -- as the majority of those interviewed for this book are -- reviewing would seem to have the potential of being a decent little side-gig, even aside from the possible professional benefits -- preferable, at least to stocking 7-Eleven shelves for a couple of hours a week. (Here, again, one wishes Chong had tried to get some hard numbers, to see whether review-income meaningfully contributes to overall income among reviewers, and to what extent payment incentivizes reviewers; one suspects one frustration 'professional' reviewers have with the rise of the amateur/online reviewers is that they seem to be doing it for free (contributing to the decline in market-value (also in pure dollar terms) of the reviewer's work).)
Inside the Critics' Circle is an interesting inside look at the current state of (fiction) book reviewing in the United States, specifically as perceived by (presumably) significant actors in the field. In its reliance on the anecdotal, it does present a somewhat one-sided perspective; I suspect a more analytic approach would reveal a considerable disconnect between many of the reviewers' claims and reality. Nevertheless, there's considerable value even just to this approach, and the study does give a good sense of the field and its practitioners' feelings about their roles and how they go about their work. Not surprisingly, those Chong interviewed do express a hope that book reviews matter, and a belief that they should, taking their mandate admirably seriously.
Much of this might be a bit 'inside baseball', but there is quite a bit here that is probably also of interest to consumers -- readers of book reviews -- as well.
¹: Chong does not identify the three publications, but it's safe to assume The New York Times (including The New York Times Book Review) is one, and I would guess The Washington Post to be another; as to the third, I have no idea.
²: Note, for example, that, while I have also published reviews in print publications (as well as a book), I do not qualify under Chong's criteria; she only considers a very specific -- though certainly the traditional -- version of 'book reviewer' (which is presumably also one reason she only found such a small pool of respondents).
³ 'Presumably' because, in fact, Chong does note and show that the intended audience is not necessarily readers/generic book-buyers per se but rather other actors in the literary community, whom the reviewer wants, in one way or another, to impress.
⁴ I remind readers of the site that I have no such compunctions: the only thing that counts is the book, and who the author is and at what stage in his or her career the book appears is NOT RELEVANT.
- M.A.Orthofer, 12 January 2020
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Phillipa K. Chong teaches at McMaster University.
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