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Faint Praise

The Plight of Book Reviewing in America

Gail Pool

Publication Year: 2007

For more than two hundred years, book reviewers have influenced American readers, setting our literary agenda by helping us determine not only what we read but also what we think about what we read. And for nearly as long, critics of these critics have lambasted book reviews for their overpraise, hostility, banality, and bias.

            Faint Praise takes a hard and long-overdue look at the institution of book reviewing. Gail Pool, herself an accomplished reviewer and review editor, analyzes the inner workings of this troubled trade to show how it works—and why it so often fails to work well. She reveals why bad reviewing happens despite good intentions and how it is that so many intelligent people who love books can say so many unintelligent things on their behalf.

            Reviewers have the power to award prestige to authors, give prominence to topics, and shape opinion and taste; yet most readers have little knowledge of why certain books are selected for review, why certain reviewers are selected to review them, and why they so often praise books that aren’t all that good. Pool takes readers behind the scenes to describe how editors choose books for review and assign them to reviewers, and she examines the additional roles played by publishers, authors, and readers. In describing the context of reviewing, she reveals a culture with little interest in literature, much antipathy to criticism, and a decided weakness for praise. In dissecting the language of reviews, Pool demonstrates how it often boils down to unbelievable hype.

Pool explores the multifaceted world of book reviewing today, contrasting traditional methods of reviewing with alternative book coverage, from Amazon.com to Oprah, and suggesting how the more established practices could be revised. She also explores the divide between service journalism practiced by reviewers versus the alleged high art served up by literary critics—and what this fuzzy boundary between reviewing and criticism really means.

This is the first book to analyze the field in depth, weighing the inherent difficulties of reviewing against the unacceptable practices that undermine the very reasons we read—and need—reviews. Faint Praise is a book not just for those who create and review books but also for everyone who loves books. By demystifying this hidden process, Pool helps everyone understand how to read reviews—and better decide what to read.

Published by: University of Missouri Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-7


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pp. 8-11

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Introduction: The Reviewer ’s Lament

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pp. 1-14

Book reviews first appeared in America at the end of the eighteenth century. They have been frustrating people ever since. So many essays and articles have been written lamenting the sorry state of American reviewing that they constitute a minor genre. For two centuries reviews have been lambasted by critics, often reviewers themselves, who ...

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Unnatural Selection

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pp. 15-32

At a National Writers Union conference many years ago, I served on a panel called “Becoming a Household Name: Book Publicity and Reviews.”My role as the reviewing member of this panel, with its dual agenda of pragmatism and dreams, was to answer the question on the ...

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Vermin, Dogs, and Woodpeckers

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pp. 33-48

Book reviewing in America is a hybrid occupation. Part trade and part profession, part art and part craft, part literature and part journalism, it lies somewhere between the outskirts of the work world and the fringes of the world ...

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The Match

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pp. 49-66

If the first-time author worries most about whether her book will be reviewed, the author publishing his fifth worries equally about who will review it: authors learn, sometimes painfully, just how much the assignment matters. In my own worst-case scenario, this book on reviewing

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Getting It Right

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pp. 67-86

In 1994, the publishing community—its reviewing contingent in particular—watched uneasily as a libel case came to court. The plaintiff was Dan Moldea, an investigative journalist, and the defendant was the New York Times.Moldea charged that the review of his ...

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Private Opinions, Public Forums

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pp. 87-107

Several years ago I agreed to review a first novel which had already received a few highly placed raves and which was written by a critic whose own reviews my assigning editor said she admired. As it turned out I found the book a ...

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Are Book Reviews Necessary?

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pp. 108-124

In recent years, book reviewing seems to have added new dimensions to its perpetual decline. As many newspapers across the country trimmed their book pages in the past decade, the familiar lament about the declining quality of reviews was joined by a lament about their ...

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Improving the Trade

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pp. 125-140

In reviewing American reviewing, not even the most seasoned of hacks would claim that its “flaws” are “minor.” The question is what realistically can be done to improve a trade so unruly, so dependent on individuals, and so constrained by obstacles that lie outside its ...


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pp. 141-148


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pp. 149-162


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pp. 163-170

About the Author

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p. 171-171

E-ISBN-13: 9780826265937
E-ISBN-10: 0826265936
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826217288
Print-ISBN-10: 0826217273

Page Count: 181
Publication Year: 2007

Edition: 1