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Interview with Gail Pool, Author of Faint Praise – The Plight of Book Reviewing in America

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Former Boston Review Editor Gail Pool has been involved in literary journalism for three decades. She has been a magazine editor, a review editor, a critic, a columnist, and a freelance journalist. Her columns, essays and articles have appeared in publications such as the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Houston Post, the San Diego Union-Tribune, the St. Petersburg Times, the Kansas City Star, Columbia Journalism Review and the New York Times, among many others. She has also written about reviewing for the Women’s Review of Books, Boston Review, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Pool is the author of Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America, published by the University of Missouri Press. For her impressive compilation of articles and essays on book reviewing, visit her Web site.

Thank you for being my guest today, Gail. Why don't you start by telling us a little about yourself?

I’ve been involved with reviewing in one way or another for about 30 years. I started out as a reviewer at Boston Review, where I later became an editor, assigning essays and reviews. Since then, I’ve been a reviewer, columnist, or review editor for publications ranging from the Christian Science Monitor and the Cleveland Plain Dealer to the Women’s Review of Books, the Nation, the Radcliffe Quarterly, and the library press. I really feel I’ve seen the field from many angles.

What constitutes a good review?

Well, I think there are many ways of writing a good review—I don’t think there’s a formula. But a good review should include an accurate description of the book that places it in a meaningful context and an assessment of whether or not the book succeeds in what it set out to do and why. As an article in its own right, a review should also be well-written and interesting to read.

What is the difference between reviewing and criticism?

There are different kinds of criticism, and reviewing is one kind. Historically, reviewing has referred to the criticism of new books. This means the reviewer is writing for readers who haven’t read the book — which is why an accurate description is so important. And it also means that critics haven’t discussed the book before, so reviewers are on their own in forming their opinions. This is one of the reasons reviewing is so difficult.

Do you see a review as an opinion or as a critique of someone’s work?

I see a review as a critique of a work. It contains the reviewer’s opinion about the book, but it goes beyond expressing an opinion: it explains how the reviewer arrived at his or her opinion, providing reasons from the book. I think of a review, even a short review, as an essay explaining a response to a book.

Do you keep the author's feelings in mind when you review?

I focus on the book when I’m reviewing, and I try to respond to the book. My job is to write about the book, after all, not the author. And I’m writing for readers, not the author. Still, I’m aware that the author does have feelings, and I don’t see the need for nastiness. I don’t think criticism should be personally hurtful.

In your book, Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America, you refer to book reviewing as a "troubled" trade. What has gone wrong with reviewing?

Reviewing in America has always been a troubled trade. Since reviews first appeared in this country, people — even reviewers — have been complaining about them. You should read the insults heaped on reviewing in the 19th century! And many of the complaints, which have remained remarkably similar over time, are justified. Too many good books are ignored, too many reviews are hype. But there are many reasons reviewing hasn’t been better, including the fact that the field has never received financial or cultural support. The reviewing community hasn’t resolved those underlying problems.

How has book reviewing changed during the last 10 years with the rise of so many online review sites?

The main change has been the increasing number of self-published reviews with no editorial oversight. We’ve always had many amateur reviewers—unpaid reviewers writing for newspapers or literary magazines, specialists reviewing in their field. But in the past there were review editors, whose job was to choose worthwhile books, match them with knowledgeable reviewers with no conflict of interest, and edit the reviews for coherence and clarity. I see this role, if it’s well done, as important, partly for the integrity of the review, and partly for quality. In my experience as a writer and editor, writers need editors.

You also state that bad reviewing happens despite good intentions and that many intelligent people who love books can sometimes say unintelligent things about them? Would you elaborate?

What I meant is that reviewers set out to write good reviews, but constraints work against them: deadlines can force them to read and write quickly, a lack of space can force them to leave out important points, low fees limit the time they can devote to a book, the pressure to be “lively” too often leads to snappy rather than thoughtful writing. In the end, whatever reviewers’ intentions, reviews are often poorly written, poorly argued, filled with clichés and overpraise.

Do you think there's a lot of 'facile praise' among online review sites as opposed to print publications? If yes, why?

I think there’s a lot of facile praise both in print and online, and on the whole I believe the reasons are similar. One central reason is that we tend to think that being “fair” means being kind to the author rather than honest to the reader. The tendency to praise too highly is a tradition firmly embedded in American reviewing. I think it’s embedded in American culture.

There are some bloggers out there who have acquired fame as tough reviewers
because of their harsh, nasty, mean reviews. What, in your opinion, is behind their philosophy?

I think they’re trying to show how smart they are, especially how much smarter than the author whose book they’re writing about. These reviews seem to me more about self-promotion than criticism. But this isn’t limited to bloggers. Nasty reviewing has a long history in print, and there are some good satirical essays mocking this kind of oneupmanship.

If a book is terrible, do you think a reviewer should write and publish the
review, or should she decline to write it?

If a reviewer finds a book so poorly conceived and written there’s nothing of interest to say about it, I don’t think she should review it. But to some degree the decision depends on the book and the aims of the reviewer or publication. Some books are bad in significant ways — they reveal a trend in writing or thinking that’s worth discussing. And there are weak books written by well-known authors that readers will want to know about, good or bad — but they need to be reviewed honestly: the reviewer has to guard against being intimidated by the famous name.

In your opinion, how influential are reviews on the consumer?

This has always been a hard question to answer because influence is difficult to measure, but I think reviews have an impact on sales and also on reputation. Reviews may not create bestsellers as Oprah does — although the New York Times Book Review has quite an impact — but the Amazon ranking for a book certainly rises after almost any review, so they do sell books. Reading groups use reviews in selecting books. Award committees use reviews. Bookstores and libraries rely on reviews in trade publications, the Times, and local papers. Directly or indirectly, reviews bring books to a reader’s attention.

Can the average reviewer review a friend's book and keep her objectivity?

No, I don’t think a reviewer should review a friend’s book. The relationship is bound to interfere with her response to the book.

Amazon and many other online retailers and review sites rate their books. Do you think this is a good thing? Is rating books fair? What should people keep in mind when looking at these ratings?

I find the rating system too crude to be useful. Reading a review, we learn not only about the book but also about the reviewer’s viewpoint and can judge for ourselves whether we want to read it. A rating accompanied by a few comments tells the reader almost nothing. Especially since reviewers apply these ratings so differently. One reviewer will praise a book, with no criticism, and give it 3 stars, while another will call a book poor and also give it 3 stars. How do we interpret this? The visual impact of these stars is hard to ignore, but I think readers should be cautious in using them.

Do you think a review written by a reader has less value than one written by
a professional reviewer? What defines a true "reviewer"?

It depends on the reader and the professional reviewer. Since reviewing began, readers have become “professional” reviewers by reviewing. There aren’t credentials or degrees. But those readers who became good reviewers had critical skills, writing skills, and they did the necessary work. And it does require work to write a good review. The reviewer has to have the background knowledge to assess a particular book and the ability to articulate his or her views on how and how well the book works. Ideally, the professional reviewer has devoted time to learning his subject field and how to write about books, and if he has, this gives value to his review. The reader, if his review is to have value, has to do this as well. It takes time and skill, which is why I’d like to see reviewing as a vocation.

Do you think a reviewer or site that receives payment for a review from the
author or publisher can be honest and objective?

I think it’s a bad idea in many ways to pay for reviews. There’s a potential conflict of interest that’s best avoided. Just as important, I think, it means that books are selected for review because publishers or authors can pay, not because they’ve been judged worth reviewing. And with so many books, we need to give attention to those that are worthwhile, not those that are best funded.

Do you see true good reviewers as endangered species?

I think that good reviews have always been an endangered species. But I do think the field is in transition right now. The danger is that the very concept of a good review will be lost amidst the mass of ratings and “comments.” But it seems to me that there will always be people with critical skills who will want to critique books well. And as some of our best critical magazines, bloggers, and online Web sites show, they’ll find a way to do that.

What advice would you offer aspiring reviewers?

My advice is to read widely. Read literature from the past as well as the present, to develop a feel for good writing and a context for understanding and appreciating what’s being written now. If you’re interested in a particular field, read in that field, know the background. In reviewing, I suggest reading carefully, writing precisely, and being brave as well as thoughtful. We need critics who will say they think something is good when it’s being ignored or that it’s weak when it’s being hyped as the new great thing, and that takes courage.

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About Mayra Calvani

Mayra Calvani writes fiction and nonfiction for children and adults and has authored over a dozen books, some of which have won awards. Her stories, reviews, interviews and articles have appeared on numerous publications such as The Writer, Writer’s Journal, Multicultural Review, and Bloomsbury Review, among many others. Represented by Serendipity Literary.
  • Kevin Eagan

    Excellent interview, Gail and Mayra! Gail has a very intriguing perspective on book reviewing, and I definitely plan to check out her book.

  • A. F. Stewart

    Exceptional interview. As long as there are dedicated reviewers, I don’t think good reviews will become an endangered species.

  • c hoare

    It is really beneficial to be able to read an interview with someone as long experienced in the field as Gail Pool. A coup, Mayra.

    Chris H.

  • Margay

    Another great interview! I am sorry to see this series end because I have learned so much from reading it. Thank you, Gail,for all of your insights into the world of reviewing. And thank you, Mayra, for conducting this series. It’s been a joy to read.