Archives for category: Reviews
  1. The Dumas Club by Arturo Perez-Reverte
  2. Lila, Lila by Martin Suter
  3. A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne
  4. In Praise of Lies by Patricia Melo
  5. Death by Publication by Jean-Jacques Fiechter
  6. The Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon Winchester
  7. Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes
  8. Hocus Bogus by Émile Ajar
  9. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  10. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Well, one of them isn’t actually a novel, it’s true-crime, but this is Antoine Laurain’s list of the top ten books about books, published in The Guardian. Mr Laurain is the author of another one, The Reader’s Room, which modestly he doesn’t include in his list. (Link via LitHub.)

Of course one might argue that any (serious) novel is to some extent about the way to write a novel. A notable recent full-frontal example is Martin Amis’ latest, Inside Story: A Novel, a very conscious meditation on life-writing and fiction. It took reading the Economist review for me to realize that Inside Story actually has a proper subtitle. The jacket carries only the quasi-subtitle/catchline A Novel, as does the title page, but buried away on the half title page and nowhere else is the full title + subtitle, Inside Story: How to Write. Even the CIP information calls it Inside Story: A Novel, though the Canadian version omits A Novel. This coyness about the subtitle has to be significant* doesn’t it?

Hate that logo!

In a charming note lower down the imprints page we learn “This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental”. Boilerplate, but bullshit. Characters in the book include Martin Amis, his wife, disguised by the use her middle name only, Christopher Hitchens, Saul Bellow, Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis and his wives, etc. etc. Lots of real people are there as large as life, however fictionalized some of what they say and do may be. Now it seems to me (and all dictionaries) that a novel is a work of fiction. And while I don’t really care what the author decides to designate his book as, I did feel a little bit curious about this one. I dare say I’d never have read a memoir by Martin Amis (never really warmed to him as the saying goes) so I guess I have to be grateful for the category shuffling as I’m glad I read the book. If this is really a memoir masquerading as a novel, is that as bad as James Frey‘s novel masquerading as a memoir? Not sure it matters in either case, but I keep wondering why Amis would do this. It can’t be, can it, that presenting his personal history as quasi-fiction makes it easier for him to be frank about things? The book copes with three deaths: the Essayist thread (Christopher Hitchens) is the most affecting: the Poet (Philip Larkin) and the Novelist (Saul Bellow) are less shattering. The heart of the book is a telling of Christopher Hitchens’ death. Little Keith (as the Hitch would call him) clearly loved his friend, and writes movingly about the awful. Maybe pretending this pain was fictitious is a mechanism enabling him to bear it. I’m not sure however that I can believe my suggestion here: Martin Amis is after all a very experienced writer, and such subterfuges are surely unnecessary for him.

At the start of Chapter 5 the author addresses us “The book in your hands calls itself a novel — and it is a novel, I maintain. So I want to assure the reader that everything that follows in this chapter is verifiably non-fiction.” Does a novel have to consist of fiction? I rather think it has to, and as I don’t know Martin Amis I find it hard to determine where fiction ends and non-fiction begins in this work. I assume Phoebe Phelps is fictitious — I hope she is — but of course I can’t be altogether sure M.A. didn’t hang out with something like this. The Daily Mail claims that she’s real: apparently someone called Antonella Gambotto-Burke claims she’s the pattern, but her claims seem too modest and restrained to match up to Phoebe Phelps. So here be fiction I suspect.

The book is structured as if we, the reader, had come round for a chat with the author, a chat which we appear to have solicited, and which is going to unfold in extenso: we’re going to stay the night. Amis chats directly with us in his introductory chapter and in his final chapter, pretentiously entitled “Preludial” and “Postludial”, promising to give us concrete advice on writing and then bidding us goodbye: “Goodbye, my reader, I said. Goodbye, my dear, my close, my gentle”. Advice he does indeed give us along the way: valuable insights like “don’t worry about splitting infinitives” and “everyone’s got a book in them” are fortunately accompanied by a whisky or two. That’s too harsh, and is actually unjust: his bits of advice, uniformly good, are set up perhaps more to demonstrate that it’s not so much the direct advice that’ll help, it’s more the surrounding story-telling and the thinking about books and writers and reading that are important. The index provides a list of his writing advice, and if you stick with those precepts you’ll do OK. Of course it’s the story-telling that’s the vital bit, and while we may indeed all have it in us, it’s tough to clear away the overlying debris in order to get at the novel buried in there.

I wonder if the two strands of writer’s manual on the one hand and the fiction/nonfiction issue on the other don’t in the end coalesce. Maybe showing us how to write a memoir which you can get the world of publishing and criticism to accept as a novel is the ne plus ultra of authorial cleverness. Follow my lead and you too can do anything you want: even write a novel which isn’t a novel. They say it’s not Amis’ best, but Inside Story is well worth a read.

A rather less obvious example of a novel as a book about writing a book is John Williams’ Stoner, which I wrote about in these terms a couple of years ago.

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* In a footnote — yes this novel has footnotes, as well as several photographs, and an index! — Amis tells of a brilliant crossword puzzle clue: “Meaningful power of attorney”, the answer being “significant” — sign-if-I-can’t. Not bad, I thought.

The Passive Voice has a piece on the subject of paid reviews. It is extremely frustrating for self publishers to find themselves unable to get their books reviewed in the mainstream media (it’s frustrating for regular publishers too). As a result many self publishers consider paying for reviews. Is this a good investment?

Well it does cost quite a lot. I’ve heard up to $575. The Passive Voice quotes $399 for Publishers Weekly and $425 for Kirkus. There are quite a lot of places where you can buy a review. Publishers Weekly published an article about the pricing at various services a couple of years ago. However the Passive Voice post focusses mainly on the quality/qualifications of the reviewers you’ll get if you pay for a review. This is all well and good, but there’s larger issue: the issue of what might be the value of having a review published at all.

Publishers Weekly and Kirkus may well be the leaders in the business of paid review publication, but our writer fails to make the distinction required in analyzing this business. Publishing reviews is a service: a service to a publication’s readers and to the authors and publishers of the books reviewed. But publishing paid reviews is a business. If Publishers Weekly can get $400 from a self-published author to arrange for and publish a review of that author’s book, who are we to say they are wrong to do so? But a paid review, even one by a qualified reviewer who’s actually read your book, carries a different message from a review in The New York Times Book Review, say. We are all conditioned to cynicism by log-rolling on Amazon.

The Passive Guy (PG), as the writer of The Passive Voice likes to refer to himself, wonders what discount traditional publishers get from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus for their pre-publication reviews of their books. The answer is 100%. No regular publisher pays any journal any sum for the publication of a review. There are two sections of reviews in PW: Book Life Reviews where authors purchase the reviews, and their regular review section where reviewing is carried out in the normal (unpaid) way. Reviews in Publishers Weekly and Kirkus tend to have scant detectable effect on the sales of books.

In fact the sales boost from any book review (and advertisement) is something which the public is inclined to exaggerate in the most extravagant way. Only the most enthusiastic review by the most prominent reviewer in the most important publication will generate detectable sales activity. (A radio review on National Public Radio can move the dial too.) Books sell for a whole variety of reasons — and we’re not really certain what they are — recommendation by a friend; luck or serendipity; a topic you need/want to know more about; an author whose other books you’ve enjoyed; eye-catching appearance catches your eye; it’s there and you just want to buy something and get out of the store. Reviews are probably less important than any of these reasons. In the academic world reviews can be more significant — obviously if Professor X thinks it’s good, maybe you should look at it. Maybe we could propose a theorem: “The more non-fiction-ish a book is the more pronounced will be the effect of a good review”. Popular non-fiction books like Barack Obama’s forthcoming A Promised Land don’t need reviews to move them out of the warehouse. A good review of The Uptake and Storage of Noradrenaline in a prestigious journal might double the sale (which of course will be comparatively tiny anyway). Any publisher would regard spending $400 to have review published in PW or Kirkus as nothing but a quick way to throw away $400. Maybe some librarians may glance at these reviews, but mostly they are getting their information elsewhere, like for instance Library Journal (in its unpaid review section).

Now of course, what I’ve just said must be open to exception. It would be interesting to hear from authors who have seen a sales pick-up from reviews they’ve paid for. I have to believe that there may well be one or two. PG notes “some indie authors who are upset by one or more of the questionable activities described above [in his piece] say they will continue to use the Kirkus and PW services because they believe the blurbs [by which I believe he means reviews] still help sell enough books to more than justify the costs.” But this isn’t real evidence of value. Just because some authors keep on doing it doesn’t mean it’s a good plan. Frankly I don’t really see how you could ever measure the effect of a paid review. You can’t do an AB test: it’s impossible to publish the book twice, once with a PW review and once without one. Maybe the sales you made would have been made anyway even if you’d kept the $400 in your pocket: correlation is not causation.

There is of course some mathematics available to help a self publisher in deciding whether or not to pay for reviews. You know how much you make on every sale of your book: let’s say it’s $5. If you think you will sell 81 extra copies by paying $400 for a review then go ahead. How you’ll ever know whether these 81 extra sales did indeed result from the review seems utterly opaque to me, but there are clearly quite a lot of authors who think the investment is worthwhile. I say caveat emptor: as The Passive Voice warns, you’ve no idea ahead of time whether the reviewer’s going to be any good, or indeed the review.

See also Sock puppetry and Reviews sell books don’t they? 

At Publishers Weekly Bethanne Patrick makes the case for digital galleys rather than printed ARCs.

Lots of publishers have been wanting to move to digital proofs for a few years now — from their point of view, not having to pay to print ARCs (basically just a short run of paperback books) would represent a significant cost saving. However, it’s not really up to the publishers. There are some reviewers who will not review a book if they don’t get a printed ARC. And in consequence there are some review media outlets that will not accept them at all.

Is this a wasting process? One suspects that an analysis of the population of book reviewers, as of the general population, would show older readers being more resistant to reading on a screen than their younger colleagues. Eventually might get to a world where digital proofs are considered acceptable by almost all?

Of course the purpose of the ARC is not just to solicit early reviews. Booksellers and librarians are often the target audience: and in a way you can see how trying to persuade a bookstore buyer to invest in an upcoming book might involve, in addition to an appreciation of the content, some sort of feeling for what the final object might actually look like.

But. . . Is the business perhaps changing under our feet as those feet remain absent from the office with their owners working from home? Surely as everything becomes more and more virtual, the proof might be expected to wander off down the same trail. No doubt it’s a hassle, but could we not devise a process where a reviewer wrote their review from a digital proof, and was rewarded later on by the receipt of a copy of the final book. (Part of the problem, at least in more specialist areas of publishing, is that reviewers tend not to be paid, or not paid very much, and being able to trade their review copy at their local second hand bookstore represents at least a little reward. In these branches of publishing ARCs are a bit of a rarity: review copies tending to be sent out after the printed edition has been received into the warehouse.)

Of course all this may eventually turn out to be a non-problem — as review media continue to shut down and reduce the space devoted to books, the whole idea of sending out review copies may become a fond historical memory.

 

Book history is a real thing. Twenty five or so years ago we’d never really heard of it: sure there were a few scholars who thought about books and how they were published in ancient times, but it wasn’t something you could say you were going to study. Now there’s a Cambridge History of it, as well as an Oxford Handbook and an Oxford Companion. Book history has arrived! Volume VII of The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, subtitled The Twentieth Century and Beyond which has the task of taking the story of the book in Britain from 1914 till whenever, was published last year. Here’s a description of the series from the back of the jacket.

This volume starts off with a thud. After a workmanlike Introduction by the three editors, Andrew Nash, Claire Squires, and I. R. Willison, Chapter 1 gets down to basics with “Materials, technologies and the printing industry” by Sarah Bromage and Helen Williams. I suspect this must have been the last chapter to be delivered. It shows every sign of not having been read by anyone in the publishing house, especially a copyeditor. It includes sentences which as far as I can puzzle things out don’t actually mean anything, and at least one where the exact opposite of what seems to be being claimed is in fact the case. The authors provide bewildering detail on phototypesetting machines, a technology whose brief involvement with the book world lasted maybe five years, a quarter of a century ago, while failing to emphasize the full significance of the digital revolution in book production and manufacturing.

The second chapter, by Sebastian Carter is a sharp improvement, though his topic isn’t really a topic which demands inclusion in such a history: to say, as he has to, that nothing much changed in book design during our period is probably not worth the 24 pages he spends doing so. Perhaps the most startling revelation he makes (to me at least) is “The first edition of the book you are reading, although it has head and tail bands and the appearance of gathered signatures, [the reality of gathered signatures actually*] is adhesively bound: the Cambridge Histories made the change from sewing around the middle of the 1990s, and most trade hardbacks had already done so. The binding material is no longer predominantly cloth: imitation cloth is nearly universal.” I knew I should never have left! It does however look to me like this book is actually bound in a cloth case material. Not a particularly good one perhaps, but a woven fabric nonetheless.

Both Chapters 1 and 2 treat hot metal typesetting as synonymous with letterpress printing, as indeed it was prior to the development of offset capabilities in British print houses in the years following World War II. But there’s nary an acknowledgment of what must have been the most common method of print production in the last third of the century: offset printing from repros produced often (in the early years almost exclusively) from hot metal typesetting. Just because you have the book’s pages set in hot metal doesn’t force you to print from that type. It must have been 90% of the books we made during the late sixties and seventies that used as original copy a single clean “proof” of pages of hot metal type. This reproduction proof (repro) would be shot by the camera at the printers and the resulting negatives used to create plates after having been stripped into imposition order on opaque backing sheets of what we charmingly called goldenrod over here.

Although the editors do mention the technological developments in the print industry which have enabled publishers to reduce their print runs without large price penalties, the book does not emphasize this development which I see as the major change in publishing during the last 100 years. This may be because prominent publishing houses (trade publishers) have been less ready to adopt the changed ability and cut their runs (though of course even they have done so to some extent; it’s just that what academics will hear about in the news is only the massive print runs). When I started out in this business the publisher’s aim was to print at one go as many copies of a book as they thought they might ever sell. Reprinting by letterpress was expensive, often requiring the complete resetting of the book, so you tried to avoid that outcome by printing large quantities, certainly expecting your first printing to last three years at least. Even reprinting by offset lithography was expensive in those days, before the development of quick-makeready presses. Reprinting was almost regarded as a sort of failure, and entailed almost as much work as doing the book de novo. Now publishers can aim to turn their inventory two or even three times a year because printing evolution has enabled them to print small quantities at affordable prices. This potentially upends the entire financial structure of the business: it no longer has to be a capital-intensive game. This seems to me the most fundamental change to have affected the industry, not the “invention” of the paperback by Penguin Books for instance which the editors identify as the most significant development of the 20th century, though they immediately have to qualify their remark by admitting that there were of course books bound in paper covers long before Alan Lane switched on the orange light.

Part I, which is all I review here, is only one of four parts, and the shortest of these. You are on to Part II after 96 pages. It is a general overview of the book trade. Part III looks at different branches of publishing. Part IV contains essays of a variety of book-related topics.

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* The book is notch bound. The signatures are sliced down the spine fold, which remains in place, and glue is forced into the cut, binding each pair of leaves to all the others in the sig, as well as to the neighboring signatures.

 

There are (at least) two sides to self publishing. Some self-published authors do it because they relish the process, while others do it almost reluctantly, frustrated by their inability to find a traditional publisher who’ll nurture their baby. Members of the second group are probably unlikely to be as successful as the first group — many of whom have managed to be wildly successful and have earned scads of money. (Be it said, yet again, self publishing does not mean second-rate publishing. It’s just a different way into the marketplace.)

In addition to the problem of getting their books into libraries, which I wrote about yesterday, one of the difficulties facing self publishers is attracting serious review attention. The number of print media book pages has declined sharply in the past ten years, and if large publishing companies are chafing at their inability to elbow all of their books into the review pages of noted publications, you can imagine the frustration facing the self publisher. Now, someone like Hugh Howey, who has established a huge following, will clearly suffer less than his frustrated peers. Print reviews of self-published books remain vanishingly rare: the key to success resides in social media. The most successful self-published authors have an audience which follows them on social media, and eagerly awaits news of their next offering. Jane Friedman provides a link to her 2015 report on social media use for the self published.

One extreme solution for those desperately seeking review coverage is just to buy it. I wrote about this under the title Sock puppetry a few years ago. For an account of how such endeavor can go awry please go to The Shed at Dulwich and view the amusing video there in which a paid reviewer takes things to their logical conclusion.

If you have a publisher you can blame them for whatever goes wrong — and this might just be one of the best reasons for some authors to go the traditional route.* If you’ve slaved to get reviewed, you can go wild if the resulting review isn’t as wildly enthusiastic as your own blurb would be, but realistically there’s not a lot you can do about it. Or is there? Here’s a cautionary tale from Smart Bitches, Trashy Books (via The Passive Voice). The Digital Reader provides a roundup of the same saga.

See also Reviews of self-published books.

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*Other reasons are discussed at Do we really need book publishers?

George Orwell’s 1936 essay Bookshop Memories (the text of which which may be found here) recounts his reactions to a short career in bookselling. He wasn’t exactly enthusiastic. A few years ago we might have kept our fingers crossed when reading his confident forecast “The combines can never squeeze the small independent bookseller out of existence as they have squeezed the grocer and the milkman.”  — Now it’s the combines which are in trouble, and I think we are all feeling a good deal more confident about the future of the small independent bookseller — almost as confident as George Orwell did.

Shaun Bythell, owner of The Book Shop in Wigtown, Scotland, a used book store, starts each month of his The Diary of a Bookseller (Melville House, 2018) with an extract from Orwell’s essay and a brief comment about it.  The Book Shop is surprisingly large as you can see from this video, the making of which is described in the book.

If you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of this post and view it in your browser.

The Diary of a Bookseller is predictably in day-by-day format and covers one year (2014-15). Mr Bythell writes an accessible, friendly prose commenting wryly on the frequent emergencies of bookshop life. He tracks the daily number of customers, amount of money in the till, and online orders. What surprised me most perhaps is how much money was involved, and at the same time paradoxically how little of it there was. He also recounts many purchasing forays: one feels that by the end of the year he must have had a lot more stock than at the beginning. As he says in the video “I’ve got more stock than an Oxo cube”.

Customers, as Orwell suggested, inevitably present problems, though discretion perhaps prevents too much open rudeness about them. My queasiness about the entire book is probably the result of a suspicion that the tone of his account of the book world is pretty much the same as mine would be. He often says things of the sort which I am quietly reminded are not as funny as I like to think they are. He even touches on one or two oddities of the book world which I’ve chosen to write about here in the past. Much fun is poked at Nicky, a surprisingly knowledgeable if somewhat erratic assistant, who leads off the rap performance in the video above (the third performer being Anna, Mr Bythell’s American girlfriend).

But despite any reservations I did like the book, and since, with this format, you can’t really have one without the other, I liked the author too, including the books he told us he was reading at the time he was writing his diary. I’m definitely not visiting Wigtown. I might decide to stay.

The Melville House webpage (linked to above) has a nice video featuring Mr Bythell’s helpful advice on Kindle repair. Making videos is one of his sidelines.

At Medium, Glenn Fleishman offers us the introduction to his book London Kerning. The subtitle might make you think this was a sort of walking-tour-guide, but it’s not. The main focus of the book is St Bride’s Printing Library off Fleet Street and The Type Archive, south of the river. Fleishman is a fan of Berthold Wolpe, and there’s discussion of his type designs, primarily Albertus, used for much London signage, and of Edward Johnston, designer of the London Underground’s typeface, and other modern type designers. He takes us to three shops where letterpress is still being carried on.

In the Times Literary Supplement of 22-29 August 2014, Jim Campbell in his NB column took Nate Rich to task for his critique of Haruki Murakami’s style in a review of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage, pointing out that the style Rich is critiquing is actually the style of the translator (who is not named in the review). If reviewers don’t speak the language from which book has been translated, there’s surely no way for them to make judgements about the style of the original. In the face of a bit of clotted prose we can assume the translator has either faithfully followed the original author’s tortuous style, or that he/she not done a very good job of Englishing it; the mess thus not being the original author’s fault. Unless you go to the original, or research criticism of it, you really can’t decide which is more likely. So if the reviewer doesn’t read the language of the original, then it’s a step too far to criticize the author’s use of that language.

JC rails again in his 25 September column. Joanna Briggs in reviewing Elena Ferrante’s The Story of the Lost Child waxes lyrical about the author’s style. As JC describes it:

Ms Biggs cites a passage of four sentences, including this one: “We would have written together, we would have been authors together, we would have drawn power from each other, we would have fought shoulder to shoulder . . .” She then proceeds to tell us how the writing works: “the second sentence — ‘we would . . . we would . . . we would’ uses repetition to create a sort of ironic momentum to this exemplary intellectual life they could never have had”. The fourth quoted sentence is “unlovely, with its rough prepositional phrases, with more than one ‘yet’: writing unpolished enough to be lifelike”.

We haven’t read the original, Storia della bambina perduta. If Ms Briggs has, she doesn’t say. But the effects that so impress her — repeated “we would”, unpolished “yet” — are created out of words chosen by the translator, Ann Goldstein, not Elena Ferrante. It may well be that she achieves the same effects in Italian, by similar means, but that’s a different matter.

And so it is. We have gotten much better at noticing the translator: respectable review media almost always mention the translator, but we haven’t managed as well to focus our reviewing on the real target, the way the translating has been done. There’s nothing wrong with criticism of the author’s style but that would involve reference to the original text as well as to the translation. Reviewing a translated novel as a novel is OK, but ideally we want our reviewer to review it as a translated novel, which would involve the reviewer’s actually reading the book in its original language as well. It would perhaps not be too unreasonable to expect this of a reviewer in responsible media. In this regard Tim Parks is a good example: see his review of the English translation, also by Ann Goldstein, of Jhumpa Lahiri’s memoir written in Italian. See also his related essay on writing in a language not your own.

Here’s an interesting discussion from Asymptote of the dos and don’ts of reviewing translated books. I agree that it isn’t essential for a reviewer to be fluent in the original language: I just think that in such a case the reviewer has to refrain from commenting on the language and style of the “book”.

It is gratifying to note that there seems to be an increase in the number of translated books being covered in our remaining print review media. The 3%-ers should be pleased. Actually I did notice that we run the risk of breaching that 3% ceiling — will they have to change their name to 4%? I remain unrepentantly skeptical of this 3% complaint. As I wrote before 3% of a big number may be more than 14% of a smaller one, and in 2011 it was. To update the numbers in that earlier post we can now say that 14% of the books published in France represents 10,918 titles, while 3% of those published in the USA comes to 10,170 books. Does the similarity of the numbers not suggest a similar interest in other cultures? We continue to increase the number of translations into English that we publish, but that number is merely a number; it’s not a measure of our cultural openness or any other kind of virtue.

Karin Wulf reviews reviewing at The Scholarly Kitchen. She selects an epitome of the review article format from The New York Review of Books, and demonstrates how it works. “The most effective review brings readers — those who have read or might read the book, but often those who have not and may not — into a broader, informed conversation about the topics the book addresses.”

In scholarly publishing reviewing is done both pre- and post-publication, and both are vital to the health of the academic community in the widest sense. Academics do reviewing mostly as a service to their community. Any remuneration for pre-publication reviews will be modest, often taking the form of a few books. Academic journals tend not to pay reviewers: you review in order to help guide your discipline forward, but also to keep your name in your colleagues’ eyes. You also get a free copy of the book.

Notoriously review media have been under pressure in recent years, and there are just fewer and fewer places where books can be reviewed in the print media. Apart from its obvious significance in the academic world, how important is the review process though? Do trade books need to be reviewed in order to succeed? Obviously not if one thinks of high fliers like Fifty Shades of Grey. However, no publisher would say that there’s no point in trying to get a book reviewed: it’s all part of trying to create that word-of-mouth buzz which is the marketing gold standard. One of the old saws we mumble now and again is “There’s no such thing as a bad review”. Any attention is better than no attention. This is of course not really true — a bad review can be a killer, especially with academic books — but the implication of second part is almost always true: getting the book talked about is (almost) always a good thing. Word-of-mouth is the real secret sauce.

Could it be that what we tend to think of when we see the words “book review” is on its way to extinction? Or perhaps to a lonely existence at the bottom of an Amazon page? I think there’s no likelihood of the disappearance of review articles of the type discussed by Ms Wulf: people just want to write about books which stimulate open-ended thinking, and an article about the American Revolution which is provoked by a particular new book is just as likely to see publication as any other article about the American Revolution (which is anyway just less explicitly inspired by previously published work).

The assumption that books get reviewed as a consequence of a free copy of the book being sent to the journal and then allocated by the editor to one of their reviewers who gets to keep the book afterwards (or to sell it off at The Strand) is so deeply ingrained, that we no longer consider whether there’s any ethical issue here. Of course there is, and this is being highlighted by the controversy over paid reviews on Amazon. The issue is starkly clarified if you think of someone getting an $800 refrigerator in return for a favorable review. Are product reviews different from book reviews? What about music reviews? What about reviews of theatrical shows? What about reviews of holiday resorts? Books are relatively cheap, so maybe this makes it less of an issue, but this doesn’t seem to make attempts to pay for coverage go away. See the examples in Digiday‘s article (linked to via The Passive Voice).

See also Purchased reviews, and Reviews sell books don’t they?

We all click our teeth about people trying to arrange for favorable reviews of their books or buying masses of copies so they’ll get onto the bestseller list. Now The Guardian (via Book Riot) reveals that Marcel Proust paid substantial sums to get favorable notices of Du côté de chez Swann onto the front pages of a couple of papers. He wrote the glowing reviews himself and sent them to his publisher to be retyped so that handwriting wouldn’t betray the evidence.

Is this OK? Does the fact that the book would (one assumes) have been a world-wide success anyway, somehow make this maneuver forgivable — was he just gilding the lily, but the flower remains a lily nevertheless? (Or should I strive here for a metaphor involving white and black swans?)

Not sure that it is OK, though of course, for all we know the practice may be much more common than we’d like to believe. Poor old Proust just got found out because copies of correspondence about the dodge surfaced in a copy of the book. Should we be more surprised that Proust was sufficiently lacking in self-confidence that he would stoop to such a trick, or that he was sufficiently unsure of the value of his work that he thought it needed such a boost? Or, perhaps, was this just what everyone did back then?

Log rolling may be quite widespread — you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours — but somehow we feel less censorious about a writer favorably reviewing a competitor’s book and then, surprise, surprise, finding that that competitor returns the complement with a similar rave. Though such a “deal” may not be a proper agreement discussed ahead of time, but merely based on an assumption of mutuality, such reviews could be said to be only half a step away from drafting the review yourself. Anonymous reviewing used to be the norm. The Times Literary Supplement started naming reviewers in 1974. What went on behind the anonymity? Maybe there’s a PhD topic in linguistic analysis of anonymous reviews to see how often they were written by the author of the book under review.

“Blurbing” has come to mean the writing of favorable comments which appear on the jacket or cover of a book. (Dictionaries appear to ignore “blurb” as a verb, though it is surely in fairly common usage.) There is no doubt a rich vein of mutuality in blurbing. We like to pretend that book reviewers are all honest and above cheap trickery. But even if you are not guilty of puffing a lousy book by a friend, reviewing something written by someone you share a lot with cannot fail to tempt you towards yes, rather than no. And this can be perfectly innocent/subconscious — you are bound, aren’t you, to find yourself agreeing with what a like-minded writer says, and what’s a friend but a like-minded acquaintance?

Reviews on Amazon are notoriously unreliable. It’s obviously a good idea to read these with a salt cellar to hand. I find them useful for factual information, about the content, say. I’ve never been tempted to act on the opinions or value judgements of a complete stranger (who could even be a robot) whose qualifications (or lack thereof) are not manifest.