Reviewing First-Time Books

I don’t really think this is an “ethical” practice (or at least not any more than its opposite), but it does seem to be an interesting twist on the “we only publish positive reviews” idea. Although, it’s unclear precisely what the LARB’s policy is. Where is the line between “constructive critique” and “reviewing positively”? Surely most first-time writers would benefit from honest feedback from competent critics. If the critic ultimately sees the book as a failure, then the constructive critique would not be run?

The Los Angeles Review of Books has a policy, which the editor Evan Kindley divulged in a Twitter back-and-forth on Friday, of reviewing first books positively or not reviewing them at all. The rationale behind the policy, Kindley explained, is “That most authors’ careers fade away on their own, and that it’s easy and not that interesting to eviscerate first-timers.” He allowed that the LARB “might make exceptions for insanely hyped debuts” like Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, and would “certainly run a constructive critique of a first book.” But it’s only fair—“ethical” was his word—“to give writers a grace period.”

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May I just suggest that this whole issue with taking it easy on certain writers, or not writing too obviously vituperative reviews of this or that book for whatever reason, is not in the least a new issue? — Elizabeth Hardwick: “The flat praise and the faint dissension, the minimal style and the light little article, the absence of involvement, passion, character, eccentricity—the lack, at last, of the literary tone itself—have made the New York Times into a provincial literary journal.” Sound familiar?

What are reviews supposed to be for? So that the reviewer can buld a network of chums who will scratch their back in turn? Or to give book readers and buyers an accurate account of a book’s quality?
From reading a a large number of reviews on LARB I get the impression that their philosophy is more the former. Now and then they present a review or article by a reputable author, but most of the reviews on that site are by unknown people and many are completely untrustworthy. Really most articles there read like some nerds jerk off session. Most recently I purchased the novel Woke Up Lonely by Fiona Maazel based upon a glowing review there and the book turned out to be pretty lousy.
I find it more important to read reviews by critics in whom I have built up trust because they consistently have opinions I respect. I like Ron Charles at the Washington Post even though I am not always interested in all the books he likes. And well obviously I like this site. Why no one has hired Mr. Esposito as a full time writer is beyond my understanding. Well I guess other than that there are now so few newspapers with permanent crtics.

Sawn, I think you’re being too harsh on LARB. “Some nerds [sic] jerk off session” doesn’t do justice to the range of essays they publish, many of which are quite insightful. Also, who cares if the review is written by “unknown people?” As long as it’s intelligent and well-written, it should be taken seriously. Literary culture is not just about the big names…that’s a good way to fall into elitism and arrogance. Finally, even “reputable” authors and critics scratch each other’s backs more often than we’d like.

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