Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America (A Review)

Review by Curtis Cole

Every day, we see reviews: in magazines, on blogs, sometimes even in newspapers; we see reviews about everything, from the latest footwear, historical novel, to even our professors. And yet, we don’t think very much about the state of reviewing, what it means to review or be a reviewer. This is where Gail Pool’s book Faint Praise comes in and elucidates on the finer aspects of the industry.

Pool’s book is best described as a hard-edged account of the ills of the industry; filled with poignant life experiences from her years of reviewing and filled with studious historical research, Faint Praise mixes the personal and professional in order to inform the reader that reviewing is not merely a serious profession—that it is not something done merely for “fun”—and that this profession has many challenges facing it.

Reading the book, one’s experience may be fairly negative, especially if you are idealistic about reviewing and thought that everything was all hunky-dory. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Between overworked and underpaid reviewers who must continuously compete with one another for the space offered, to slipshod review editors, and careless (even uncaring) publishers, the situation is dim; throw in an anti-intellectual culture which regards reviewing as a lesser act of journalism, and you have a perfect storm of hardship.

Thankfully, as the old saying goes, there is a bit of light at the end of the tunnel.

By the final chapter, Pool outlines some provisionary steps which can be taken to better the industry. On the minimum, she maintains that cultural appreciation should be raised and that publishers need to do a better job in selecting, handling, and sending out their products. But, what she suggests will really help push reviewing into a bright future is more experienced review editors; people who, in other words, are able to communicate with reviewers why books selected for reviewing matters and why their job matters. This is not to say that higher wages and the sort are not needed as well, but as with everything, the economics of the field need to be stabilized and major changes made to how literature is reviewed in the first place (such as, for example, an ethical schemata to ensure that abuse is not regularized). Much is wrong and at stake. But review editors, by maintaining a code of ethics, regularly talking with their reviewers, and making a more stringent commitment to what gets reviewed, can make the first step in bettering the industry.

As a reader going into this book without any knowledge of what the “reviewing industry” constituted, I was surprised at all the issues and controversies in the field. Though I do not agree with all of what Pool supports, I do feel that her words are sobering and she has certainly made me want to better my own literary practice.

In a sense, then, Faint Praise should be mandatory reading for anyone who desires a career in reviewing. It will give them, in the least, an idea of what they will be up against should they try to make a living out of reviewing, and they will appreciate the hardships which will become their life; one can hope, of course, that by the time those readers become reviewers the issues facing the industry will be resolved; but, realistically, this is unlikely. So in the meantime, we have Pool’s powerful little book to help us along our way as we try to rejuvenate a failing practice.

Faint Praise

Gail Pool

170 pages. Published by University of Missouri U.P. 2007.

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