Just to add to Ron Charles’ great remarks. A lot of the reviews in our nation’s periodicals of record are bland and phoned-in because they’re written by . . . novelists. Yes, I understand that sometimes great novelists are great critics and vice versa, but most of the time if you dedicate your life to writing great fiction you probably won’t have time to do the kinds of things necessary to be a good critic. Like . . . read. I recall once seeing David Foster Wallace and Rick Moody in conversation, and it came to light that neither man had read a single word of William T. Vollmann. (They went on to add that they didn’t read much contemporary fiction.)
The point is that a lot of editors toss review work to novelists because their byline looks good on a cover and novelists can generally be counted on to produce writing that will leave a reader awake (a challenge for too many critics). But a lot of them a) don’t want to offend potential colleagues; b) know what it’s like to read a bad review of their own work and don’t want to write one; or c) just don’t know how to write very good criticism.
I’m not claiming that all novelists are bad critics, only that having published a novel with a major publisher tends to qualify you to review in a lot of places that you might not actually be qualified to review in.
As a reader of many, many reviews, I have to admit I’m more alarmed by the number of dull ones than the number of unkind ones. For all the celebration of “democratizing criticism,” the chatty responses on Amazon have only dimmed the flame more, as far as I can see, though none of us snobs should ever admit that publicly. (Do I need a “friend” on Goodreads to tell me that “Mira Grant’s ‘Feed’ “has zombies in it, but to call it a zombie or horror novel does it a disservice”?)
And speaking of zombies: Bland plot summaries, worn out compliments and the requisite quibbles have surely done more than excess bile to drain the life out of the nation’s book review sections. I look longingly at the fist-fights in British newspapers and wish we could roll up our sleeves more often in this country.