Book Reviewers and Card Sharps in the Penny Press!

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The legendary “NB” back page of the mighty Times Literary Supplement summoned a voice from the past in the May 25 number – a rasping, slightly down-market voice from the past: Anthony Burgess, who was a frequent contributor to the paper and who, in 1980, answered a quick questionnaire sent to him by the New Edinburgh Review, asking two questions: 1) What do you consider to be the main purpose of book reviewing? And 2) What effect is a review likely to have on the author, or the public, or sales?

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The questions caught Burgess in a typically cynical mood (you'd be cynical too if you were trying to get through every day with 3% lung capacity – it can wear you down a bit), and his answer to the first question was pitched to be about as damning as he could make it:

Book reviewing in Great Britain is cognate with book advertising in Great Britain: it is a means of telling readers of newspapers what new books are available. It differs from advertising in that it evaluates the books according to theories of value which the reviewer holds empirically, while the advertisement merely tells the reader that the books are unequivocally good. Unfortunately, reviewing is rarely true criticism. Reviews are too brief to say much. In the days of the old Edinburgh Review there was room to expound on a whole aesthetic and to consider an author in terms of it. The TLS sometimes deals at length, and often admirably, with new books, but very rarely with books that people actually buy. It is a scholar's periodical.

Which is all well and good for the TLS (and, I suppose, for the dear departed Edinburgh Review – the one frequently cut Burgess modest payments convenient for the week's liquor bills, and the other was the namesake of the question-sender, with Burgess trying always to be diplomatic), but it's pretty rough handling for all the rest of the reviewing crowd, all those book reviewers toiling in the skimpy Arts sections of local and national newspapers, little guessing that they're all witless adjuncts of the Marketing Department down the hall.

And as if the first answer weren't bad enough, Burgess outdoes himself with his second. His first answer contended that there's really no such thing as good newspaper book-reviewing. His second answer contended that nobody's paying attention in any case:

Reviews are mostly ignored by the general public. The books that sell best – Harold Robbins, Barbara Cartland etc – are hardly ever reviewed. At most, they are noticed scathingly. No author has ever, since the days when Arnold Bennett could make or break a reputation in the Evening Standard, either benefited or suffered from reviews.

Like many TLS readers, I save reading “NB” for last, so before I got to those dolorous pronouncements, I'd already read and enjoyed dozens of examples of the kind of thing Burgess claimed only the TLS ever did even partially well. As usual, the issue was crammed full of great reviews. Christian Lorentzen turned in a long and generously thoughtful overview piece on the Patrick Melrose novels of Edward St. Aubyn, but that's a long overview so it might not count in the Burgess reckoning. But even the straight-up book reviews were brilliant left and right this time around. When reviewing Barbara Ehrenreich's new book Natural Causes, her jeremiad against the over-medicalization of American life, for instance, Carol Tavris surprised me with a slant of criticism that hadn't occurred to me when I read the book:

I suspect that as a woman in her mid-seventies, she is probably too young to have written this book. She is not yet in the decade of life between “I don't need regular physicals and tests” and “I don't want end-of-life excessive interventions”: the decade (usually the eighties) in which many people start having one problem after another, each of which can be treated medically and for which the alternative means pain or disability: macular degeneration, crippling arthritis, atrial fibrillation, stenosis, heart conditions, neuropathy … for which of these conditions, if any, would she forego seeking treatment? I look forward to her update of this wise book in ten years.

Or, elsewhere in the issue, Kate Manne takes on the mega-bestselling and mysteriously cult-inspiring Jordan Peterson book 12 Rules for Life, serving up its pretensions and murky imprecisions with a harsh clarity that felt to me at times like it was directed as much at Peterson's infamous target audience as at Peterson himself:

Peterson's advice is primarily directed towards, and has resonated with, a very particular audience: those predominantly white, straight, cis, and otherwise privileged men who fear being surpassed by their historical subordinates – people of color and white women, among others – and losing their loyal service.

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Naturally, I looked back at these and other terrific reviews with a more jaundiced eye after reading the Burgess answers, but I needn't have. Burgess made a life's profession out of sounding like he knew what he was talking about, and the evil of this skill entered in when he made himself sound like he knew what he was talking about even when he knew otherwise. No one will ever know the exact tally of newspaper book reviews Burgess wrote (under his own name and others), but one thing is absolutely certain: he never considered a single one of them negligible, “rarely true criticism,” or a mere adjunct to paid advertising.

No, instead what he's doing is a bit of card-sharping – he knows perfectly well what newspaper book reviewing does and doesn't do (very few people in 1980 would have known better), and in these dyspeptic answers he's just playing the Crusty Old Man. Newspaper book reviewers aren't engaged in formal literary criticism, as Burgess knew – he's faulting them for failing at something they don't even attempt, which is a classic Crusty Old Man tactic.

And he's also flat wrong of course about his second answer, all that business about authors neither suffering nor benefiting from reviews. He cites popular (bad) authors who are never reviewed and still dominate the bestseller lists as evidence that reviews are essentially pointless, without allowing his readers time to wonder how those authors got to be popular in the first place. And what to make of that nonsensical point that authors themselves never benefit from reviews, when he himself could at the drop of a hat reel off verbatim quotes from every negative review he ever received? For missteps he never repeated once he'd read them mocked in print? I've written only a fraction of the book reviews Burgess wrote in his life, and I've lost count of the number of authors who've told me my reviews usefully alerted them to some blind spot or writerly tic – the same thing must have happened to Burgess hundreds of times.

It's not a newspaper book reviewer's job to lay out a detailed aesthetic theory sufficient to pinion an author's latest work under glass forever, and Burgess knew that, since he wrote both first-rate book reviews and first-rate formal literary criticism. He knew the two scarcely ever even intersect, much less coexist.

But he was right about one thing: the TLS does book-reviewing admirably well. And it's improved immeasurably in the “books that people actually buy” department.

Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is