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Reviewed by:
  • Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America
  • Jeffrey R. Di Leo
Gail Pool, Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2007, X + 172 pp.

Faint Praise provides an insightful overview of the history and state of book reviewing in America. Given that there is no other book on this topic, Gail Pool’s study is an important intervention. Book reviews raise a host of intriguing questions situated at the intersection of the economic, political, and intellectual dimensions of American culture. For example, why is it that books from larger commercial publishing houses are more often reviewed than books from small and university presses? Why is it that books on some topics just never seem to be reviewed? Why is it that the vast majority of book reviews are positive?

Pool’s study touches on each of these questions as well as a number of others. She draws on her experience as former editor of the Boston Review and as book columnist for the Christian Science Monitor, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and the San Diego Union-Tribune to address these matters with practical insight and useful suggestions. Her experience as a professional book reviewer and former book review [End Page 220] editor provides a rare, extended, inside look at a neglected dimension of American book culture.

Rather than following the standard “tired tale” of the “perpetual decline” (140) of book reviewing in America—a perception that Pool notes has been around since the institution’s inception at the end of the eighteenth century—she aims to provide a realistic set of suggestions “to improve a trade so unruly, so dependent on individuals, and so constrained by obstacles that lie outside its control” (125). Still, though her study points out several improvements needed in the book reviewing trade, it provides far too little working detail as to how to actually bring about these improvements.

Her first and most “essential” suggestion for improvement is that “we need to devise a better means of choosing books for review” (125). “Our current system inevitably leads to overlooking good books, overpraising bad ones, and undermining the book page” (125). Her point is a valid one—and indeed one of the major problems facing book reviewing in America today. It is complicated even more by an increase in the number of titles published coupled by a decrease in review venues. However, while she points out several efforts to address the oversight of titles by reviews, such as that of Kirkus, which launched an effort in 2004 to review any book for a fee (126), Pool concludes that these projects are headed in the wrong direction. She rightly points out that “the selling of reviews” “divests reviewing of one of its central functions: meaningful selection” (127). If the current efforts at reform are flawed, what then would provide a better means of choosing books for review? Pool does not provide a compelling response to this question.

Pool’s study would have benefited by directing more of the responsibility to not overlook good books for review and to refrain from publishing reviews that over-praise bad books toward the editors of book reviews themselves. While Pool’s study leads in this direction, it falls short of ultimately placing these responsibilities in the hands of editors. A book review editor has the power to both reject reviews that overpraise bad books as well as to set up mechanisms within their book review process to avoid as much as possible overlooking good books. One such mechanism to aid this process is a well-rounded group of knowledgeable associate editors and reviewers that can advise the book review editor—that is, provide the editor with a broader and more in-depth vantage point on forthcoming and new books. No editor can remain aware of all of the “good” books on the horizon that merit review, though they can gain more insight on noteworthy books through the sage advice of their colleagues and peers.

Pool’s second suggestion is that “we need to find better ways to reward reviewers” (127). Again, while this point is relevant, Pool offers little insight as to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-0887
Print ISSN
0195-7678
Pages
pp. 220-224
Launched on MUSE
2008-05-24
Open Access
No
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