Please Review Books
A brief plea
The other week, Christian Lorentzen, the excellent literary critic and Substacker now inspiring all sorts of musings at the New York Times, made a wry observation of the paper of record. “Not good, not bad, not recommended, not denounced, but certainly recent,” Lorentzen tweeted, responding to another tweet from the Times’ Book Review account that simply linked to an online piece featuring “a selection of recently published books.”
Lorentzen, deadpan, was gesturing to a trend that has unfortunately swallowed much of the literary world in recent years. In an era of diminishing newspaper book review sections, fewer and fewer people are paid to write critically on literature and nonfiction. And among those who still do it, there is a tendency to shy away from anything other than unvarnished praise or a neutral recommendation. The Times is one of the few newspapers that still has a standalone book review section, published each Sunday, and they employ some of the best literary critics in America, including Jennifer Szalai and Dwight Garner. But the Times, as Lorentzen showed, is not immune to publishing pieces that shuck criticism altogether. Our higher culture, caught in stasis and mired in a pervasive anti-intellectualism, does not need more press releases.
Many of the publications that still discuss books will treat them like interchangeable consumer items. There are lists of most anticipated, various rankings, and soft profiles of temporarily anointed authors. Literary Hub, a daily literary website launched by some of the industry’s more notable twentieth century luminaries, publishes essays, commentary, interviews, book excerpts, and news from the publishing world. It does not regularly, if ever, publish original book reviews of newly released books. It will certainly round up reviews published elsewhere. This is not to pick on Literary Hub. They are not alone. Reviewing books isn’t what Esquire does anymore, either.
I am self-interested here because I publish books. I was lucky to have the Nation review my second book in their print issue. My new novel sold much better than anything else I had previously published, but was reviewed nowhere beyond the trade publications. Book reviews don’t necessarily drive sales—though a rave review, well-placed, can—but they are vital to a culture’s gravity. A good critic wrestles with the text and the greater ideas pulsing around it and engages in conversation with others who have dedicated the time to do the same. That should be underscored. It takes more time and effort to write a review of a book. For those publications still engaging with literature, it’s easier to commission yet another preview piece or ranking or semi-arbitrary listicle than pay a human being to spend several days or weeks to read one book and then write about it. It takes serious effort to fully read a book, imbibe the author’s message and style, and then write something coherent, even attractive.
The financial model that enabled the twentieth century newspaper book review section is dead. It will never come back. But that does not mean the art of book reviewing has to die. Publications can commission reviews. There are many Substacks dedicated to all sorts of fascinating topics, but few that just review books. Are you a recent college graduate or just someone interested in books? Do you think you have something to say? There’s an opportunity if you want to seize it—read books and write about them. Read other works of literary and cultural criticism. Treat books as works of art, not tchotchkes for your living room or the must have fall item. Eviscerate a book if you believe it’s failed; praise it if you believe it’s worthwhile. Do the work consistently. You’ll attract a subscriber base. You’ll be doing something few others are doing. The culture will be better for it.
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