What is a book review actually for?

This guy is calling out reviewers who are more interested in their own cleverness than reviewing the book at hand, and asks why we tolerate this. Oh, sweetie, you don’t actually want the answer to that. It’s the same reason the world is currently run by bombastic buffoons and reality TV stars. We value entertainment over substance. And critics are are either smart enough to know, or self-absorbed enough believe, that translates to critical writing.

Broadly speaking, then, there are two main aims of a non-fiction book review in the general press. (I’ll come onto the more specialised organs, the TLS and the LRB, in a moment.) The first is to allow a significant literary figure to write a lengthy piece displaying their erudition, and which permits sub-editors to come up with a headline along the lines of ‘Julian Barnes on Jean-Paul Sartre’ or similar. The book itself is secondary, its coverage almost an irritation. And the other is nuts-and-bolts criticism, an engagement with an author’s intentions and aims where the fascinations of the subject are secondary to whether the writer has managed to make them accessible to a general audience. This may be less lofty, but is undeniably of more use to the profession, and probably to the potential purchaser, too.

It is incomprehensible that the first category has been so popular in the books industry for years. It would not be permissible or desirable in any other art form. It is inconceivable that one would read a review of a new staging of Hamlet which muses on the difficulties of staging the play, textual issues with the First Folio etc, and then concludes with the words ‘most of the performances are fine’ or ‘the lighting is excellent’. And in a culture that decries spoiling cinematic revelations, film criticism is an even harder art to perfect: writers who spend too long on plot synopses, or inadvertently give away surprises, are likely to find themselves subject to a barrage of aggrieved abuse on social media from disappointed fans.

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