Although there are times when Chong gets a bit wordy and perhaps repetitive, her overall take on book reviewers and their work is well organized and informative. A must read for anyone interested in the challenge of book reviewing.
Although I’ve been reviewing books for half a century, this little treatise caused me to do some anxious head-scratching. Phillipa Chong...here presents an earnest sociological analysis of an activity that for me has been sometimes a chore, always a test of punctuality and proficiency, on occasion a wickedly thrilling chance for retaliation, but mostly a source of pleasure. Reading the product of Chong’s jargon-clogged research, I found that I lacked all symptoms of the professional malaise that afflicts her informants, who suffer, she believes, from 'epistemic uncertainty' ... none of the eight successive Observer literary editors for whom I have worked ever ordered contributors to 'enact their duties', which would have sounded unusually bossy. When they patted me on the back, was I being commended for 'satisficing in the face of practical constraints'? I hope so, because satisficing, I gather, is a 'cognitive heuristic' that defines an 'acceptability threshold ... Reading this, I wondered whether I shouldn’t 'play nice' like that midwesterner and temper my verdict on Chong’s enterprise with a little 'harm reduction'. But the twinge of compassion soon passed. If a book is bad it’s bad and if it’s merely an exercise in academic pseudo-intellection it’s even worse.
We hear about 'interventions' and 'boundary work' and suchlike—which is to say that Chong herself does the sort of boundary work that means ordinary readers (ie the consumers of the newspaper reviews that are her subject matter) will find her book pretty indigestible. This is a shame, because she has a number of more or less sensible things to say, even if they run on a spectrum from the slightly interesting to the bleeding obvious ... Chong is really just an awkward writer, a disadvantage for someone writing about writing about writing ... although Chong acknowledges, with some rather bleak tables of percentages, that critics attempt to argue for their reactions to books with reference to characterization, prose style, structure, themes and genre expectations, she investigates in frustratingly sparse detail how that 'evaluating work' is actually done, which is the heart of the matter. Good critics do make a coherent case, on the book’s own terms, for why its craft is or is not satisfactory—and they do so with their readers rather than the author in mind. That’s the counsel of perfection, and you don’t really need a statistical survey to arrive at it.
...[an] academic but engaging analysis of book reviewing ... Chong endeavored to put some scientific rigor around the motivations of fiction reviewers by interviewing 40 of them, a random sample drawn from more than 1,000 bylines that had appeared in one of three major (but unnamed) national newspapers ... It’s odd: The critics Chong spoke to have strong good-of-the-order feelings when it comes to novelists, but have little sense of belonging when it comes to critics. This, for better or for worse, seems a function of Chong’s methodology, which seems to skew heavily toward the novelist-critic.
...almost entirely anecdotal, with very little empirical follow-through. Chong takes the reviewers by their word -- assuming, perhaps, that with anonymity comes honesty...without even testing the claims. She notes their complaints about poor reviews (like ones where the reviewer gets plot points wrong because they presumably read the book too carelessly and quickly) and concludes the reviewers she spoke with: 'avoid practices they perceived to be unfair or otherwise inappropriate when reading reviews of their own work because they did not want to be guilty of the same sins', but there's no suggestion she ever put that claim to the test ... So also, for example, Chong notes an apparently widespread attitude of a softer treatment of first-time novelists -- but offers not even a rudimentary counting of such reviews and whether they are indeed gentler or more positive than, say, reviews of bestselling authors ... Inside the Critics' Circle is an interesting inside look at the current state of (fiction) book reviewing ... In its reliance on the anecdotal, it does present a somewhat one-sided perspective; I suspect a more analytic approach would reveal a considerable disconnect between many of the reviewers' claims and reality.
A clinical exploration of how books get reviewed, what the consequences are, and whether any of it means anything at all ... Whether it’s the threat posed by 'amateur reviewers' on Amazon, Goodreads, or other online platforms or the existential threat that keeps reviewers up at night...these are questions worth pondering. However, noncritics and other lay readers aren’t likely to find much value in this speculative dissection of a complicated and evolving trade .... Useful reading for book critics and journalists who cover books, but the audience likely ends there.