Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism. Published by Cow Eye Press

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Bookish Reader

I tend to not review a book if it is no good. That seems to solve any problems with giving a glowing review when it is not needed. But I understand the NYT and other venues as they get a lot of money and advertisements from publishing companies so there is pressure to do a good review.

Jim H.


You make an important point about the difference between reviews and criticism. A further distinction might prove helpful for the generalist reader (not most of your readers, however, as they, I'm sure, get it): Not all criticism is negative.

Often, people assume a critical response necessarily means a negative response. This is far from accurate. First, let's start with the assumption that no work of fiction is 'perfect' (the meaning of which we could go on and on about ad infinitum). A critical reading of any work, especially one the critic likes, should take it apart, suss out the moving parts, and show what does and does not work. Just because one feature of a work fails, or is weak, doesn't mean that work is somehow 'bad'. Analyzing a novel is not the same as being pejorative.

Further, just because I as a critic dislike a book doesn't make it a bad book. That's a question of taste. There's many a so-called 'masterpiece' that bores the hell out of me. But, as a critic, I should be able to say why so many other have found it important and 'good' and then why it didn't work for me.

A review that gives a brief plot summary and a thumb of the main character and says "I really liked it" or "I didn't like it" isn't very helpful at all, unless the reader is a follower of the reviewer—think Roger Ebert in the movie reviewing dodge.

Hype, neither.

Jim H.

bianca steele

You say most readers know that a positive review doesn't necessarily mean the reviewer thinks the book is good, because there is an unwritten rule in professional reviewing that all reviews need to be positive. The "rule" may be so (you probably know better than I do), but I don't think the first part is general knowledge. Most people, I think, (including me) do hope to get information from the book-review page. They want to know which books are worth expending their time and money on. They want to know what's going on in the literary world, which is, after all, an extension of their own world. They want to know what the most educated people think about what books are being published and who's publishing them. Those aren't totally unreasonable wishes. I don't know how the expectations of journalists and general readers could have gotten so out of joint.

Stephen B

I write a review of every book I read, and I read 10+ books a month - mostly for my own benefit, but I also upload the better ones to Amazon where it is very competitive in the reviewer rankings. Reviews are scored mostly on how well it helps shoppers in deciding if they want to buy a book, so any serious criticism has to be sneaked in. I also write reviews of books I don't like and score low, those are the most difficult.

I would like to be a more serious reviewer, in the sense you discuss in this wonderful essay (a little review there), but honestly don't know how. What models from the past and present are there to reflect on? As you quote, "we will have to resurrect the critic" - who, exactly, are we resurrecting?



While a good many books critics (in Memphis, Raleigh, Orlando and many other places) I respected have gotten the axe or been moved to Lifestyles or taken early retirement in the past decade, there are a few solid ones still left. It seems to me that we should try and praise the responsible ones who remain, not just condemn the generality of practice. Perhaps somebody out there ought to make a survey. Editors at the better houses and presses tend to have a solid grasp on who writes with substance, and often it is somebody in an unexpected small city, Baton Rouge or Anniston, say.


Nice post, Dan. I'm also reminded of that great exposure of brain-dead, reflexively know-nothing book reviewing, FIRE THE BASTARDS! by Jack Green, his barn-burning defense of Gaddis's RECOGNITIONS. Hmmm, Green . . . any relation?

The whole thing is now online here:

But everyone should be sweet and buy a copy from Dalkey Archive Press (and one for a holiday gift for a friend or a wayward reviewer).

Green - the earlier incarnation - published it in three issues of his own mimeographed self-produced underground newspaper, called "newspaper," in the early sixties. It just occurred to me that if a Jack Green were to do the same thing today it would be as an insurgent blogger.

Cherie Parker

As a regular newspaper reviewer, I can't help but be hurt by the continuing criticism by literary academics of the current state of reviewing. Of course many book reviews in newspapers are crap; but compare them to the movie and drama reviews in the same publications and you may find that issues of quality can be traced back to certain arts editors, not necessarily individual reviewers. Anyone who thinks there is any pressure to "be positive" to placate publishing houses has absolutely no clue about the dynamic at work. In truth, the incredibly small amount of space allotted to book reviews (especially fiction) means most books editors are hounded by pleading publicists to please, please, take even a small look at their new releases. The main reason so many reviews are positive is amazingly simple: space for reviews is so limited that it better serves the mainstream reading public to tell them what they SHOULD read, as opposed to what they shouldn't. If I read 10 books a month and get one review in print, doesn't it make sense that I talk about the best of the bunch?

Sadly, with the demise of newspapers much of this is moot. But maybe the move to online reviewing (I blog at can help fill in some of the gaps and get more attention--both positive and negative--to a greater number of books.

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