Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing

The book review is still dying

But the problem is worse than I thought

A while ago, I wrote “The book review is slowly dying, and we don’t need to mourn it”, in which I claimed that book reviews have for some time now been getting worse at doing what they’re supposed to do: letting potential readers know what a book is like (that includes what it’s about) and whether it’s something they might want to read.

I believe that this happens increasingly often: the reviews and marketing material for a book or film are presenting an utterly misleading impression of what the work is about. As guides to what you should read or watch, they’re effectively useless.

I put the declining usefulness of reviews down in large part to the internet’s unease with “spoilers”, which extends to anything that could plausibly be objected to by someone unfamiliar with the story, including its premise and events that take place in the first few chapters. I wrote that:

the obsession with avoiding spoilers is inhibiting the online discussion of books (and films), to the point where the internet has come to seem like a repository of generic, contentless expressions of enthusiasm or its opposite.

I haven’t changed my view in the meantime but a recent piece in Slate by Eric Farwell has persuaded me that the problem is worse than I thought, in that it affects not just book reviews but also the descriptions that you find on the jackets of books themselves. Farwell asks:

How did we get to a place where we can’t rely on book descriptions to tell us what the book is actually about or what the writing is really like?

If the rot were confined to book reviews we could probably safely ignore it and let them continue on their slow slide into irrelevance. But when the “meaningless mush” becomes part of the book jacket itself, something needs to be done.

Incidentally, it may be that the problem has its origins in the publishers’ copy; and that, in directing my attention in the previous post at book reviews in particular, I was looking at a symptom rather than the root of the problem. Referring to Farwell’s piece, Vox reviewer Constance Grady tweeted that “when I wrote book blurbs, I saw lazy critics rip off my copy all the time to use in the kicker of their reviews”. (This tweet may no longer exist.)

So, maybe all those bland, uninformative and generic reviews are originating in the bland, uninformative and generic publishers’ copy. Maybe the dying book review is no more than collateral damage. (This is not, of course, to imply that Grady’s blurbs were bland or generic, just that if lazy reviewers are going to repurpose the publisher’s copy, they’re probably not going to distinguish between good descriptions and bad.)

We keep being told that publishing is in crisis, and I’m inclined to believe it. But whether it’s true or not, it seems obvious that publishers should be striving to sell more and more books. And they’re not going to do that by producing descriptions that leave potential readers in the dark as to what a book is about, and what it’s like to read.