“STARTLINGLY SMART,” “REMARKABLE,” “endlessly interesting,” “delicious.” Such are the adulatory adjectives scattered through the pages of the book review section in one of America’s leading newspapers. The praise is poignant, particularly if one happens to be the author, hoping for the kind of testimonial that will drive sales. Waiting for the critic’s verdict used to be a moment of high anxiety, but there’s not so much to worry about anymore. The general tone and tenor of the contemporary book review is an advertisement-style frippery. And, if a rave isn’t in order, the reviewer will give a stylized summary of sorts, bookended with non-conclusions as to the book’s content. Absent in either is any critical engagement, let alone any excavation of the book’s umbilical connection to the world in which it is born. Only the longest-serving critics, if they are lucky enough to be ensconced in the handful of newspapers that still have them, paw at the possibility of a negative review. And even they, embarking on that journey of a polemical book review, temper their taunts and defang their dissection. In essence they bow to the premise that every book is a gem, and every reviewer a professional gift-wrapper who appears during the holidays.
It is a pitiable present, this one that celebrates the enfeebling of literary criticism, but we were warned of it. Elizabeth Hardwick, that Cassandra of criticism, predicted it five decades ago, when she penned “The Decline of Book Reviewing” for Harper’s magazine. It is indeed some small mercy to her that she did not live to see its actual and dismal death. Hardwick would have winced at it and wept at the reincarnation of the form as an extended marketing operation coaxed out by fawning, persistent publicists. In Hardwick’s world reviewers and critics were feared as “persons of dangerous acerbity” who were “cruel to youth” and (often out of jealousy) blind to the freshness and importance of new work. Hardwick thought this an unfair estimation, but she would have found what exists now more repugnant. The reviewers at work now are rather the opposite, copywriters whose task it is to arrange the book in a bouquet of Wikipedia-blooming literary references.