Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America (3.5/5)

Each chapter of Faint Praise features a measured, workmanlike argument about topics like book selection, or matching reviewers and books, or the ethical minefields of the industry. Surprisingly thoughtful but not exciting. Gail Pool doesn’t work up much outrage or seem very enthusiastic about the status of the book reviewing trade. She doesn’t spend a lot of time critiquing (or celebrating) review per se; the focus is more on the industrial machinery and how book reviews get squeezed. But occasionally in this “towering achievement” she does offer “compelling” indictments of modern reviewing crutches, rendered in “luminous prose” that “leaves the reader breathless” (for example).
The final verdict is that book reviewing is important, it’s needed, and it’s under-valued, but that won’t change until… uh, things change.

Read more in James Wolcott’s better review:

If Faint Praise has a virtuous flaw, it’s that it thinks too small, is too practical-minded, and doesn’t make ample room for the occasional healthy rampage. It lays so much stress on the stringencies of book reviewing, the shortfalls and iron deficiencies of the form, that it is hard to understand why anyone other than a masochist, a worker drone, or an antennae-quivering opportunist would take it up except to notch a byline. Its funky sense of battle fatigue reflects the mood in the editorial trenches, where nothing beckons on the horizon except more bad news. Even the title, Faint Praise, sounds wan and droopy, as if the most that reviews can achieve now is to rack up small yardage, provide a useful service. We’re going to have to make do with making do, is the book’s sober message.

It’s sober, all right. Where is the swashbuckling fun, the exploding scoreboard, the whisking pirouettes? So focused is Faint Praise on institutional woes, incremental change, and improvements in quality control that it scants the virtuoso individuality that makes book reviewing a more interesting activity than, say, raking leaves.

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