Drawing on interviews with critics from such venues as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post, Phillipa Chong delves into the complexities of the review-writing process, including the considerations, values, and cultural and personal anxieties that shape what critics do.
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.