Does the book reviewer have just one job — to review the work at hand honestly and fairly? No, dear reader, she does not. Like most every other literary endeavours, from writing, to editing, to teaching in MFAs, book reviewing is not part of a capitalist machine that sucks in intellect and sweat equity from people who need to pay the rent and spits out a sort of saccharine bee-barf-honey of digestible content (or a painful sting). There’s no space, no editorial drive, and no requirement to do anything other than firehose spray hyperbole (positive or negative) into the world to see what catches people’s attention, then do more of that. Check it out at N+1.
The main problem with the book review today is not that its practitioners live in New York, as some contend. It is not that the critics are in cahoots with the authors under review, embroiled in a shadow economy of social obligation and quid pro quo favor trading. The problem is not that book reviews are too mean or too nice, too long or too short, though they may be those things, too. The main problem is that the contemporary American book review is first and foremost an audition — for another job, another opportunity, another day in the content mine, hopefully with better lighting and tools, but at the very least with better pay. What kind of job or opportunity for the reviewer depends on her ambitions.
Reader, behold your gatekeeper, standing by a broken fence in the middle of an open plain.