Wait, critics still review books? Mind. Blown. But seriously… what is the point? The societal wave that leads news outlets to include tweets from internet randos as part of their “journalism” is the same one that means book buyers are more likely to listen to Karen Schmoe on Goodreads or Amazon over a professional reviewer in the paper. The books sections (those few that still exist) are just there to make the sports scores less limp when you fold the paper over to read on the subway.
The notion of “punching up” – you try to be nice to first-time novelists, whereas you can say what you like about Stephen King or Ian McEwan – is, as Chong sees it, a reaction to the “superstar market” of publishing, where to a very small handful of victors go most of the spoils. She makes a decent case that in some ways this would-be corrective actually helps perpetuate the superstar market – by implicitly endorsing the special status of the writers under review, and by drawing attention to them (and the critic) with showy, giant-killing takedowns.
But 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.
But is the discipline, as is frequently said, “in crisis”?