Against effusive praise in book reviews

In the NY Times Sunday Book Review, there’s an amusing and entertaining column by Joe Queenan about his observation that book reviews often contain unduly effusive praise for works that don’t deserve it. Citing numerous examples, he takes critics to task for their routine failure to sharpen their pens and go in for the kill.

No doubt Queenan is right that many books receive undeserved plaudits, and that critics often exaggerate the significance and quality of the works under review. He’s also correct that many book critics are sloppy and lazy, and won’t hesitate to throw out a well-worn reviewing cliche (“incandescent,” “spellbinding,” etc.) or an absurd comparison to time-tested greats like Shakespeare or Joyce when doing so is easier than coming up with more original or substantive descriptions.

That said, I don’t agree with Queenan’s call for book critics to increase their focus on the negative. Of the many thousands of books that are published every year, most aren’t worthy of anyone’s notice. All the same, there’s always more than enough praiseworthy new work out there for book review pages to be filled with positive reviews at all times. Critics have a responsibility to assess books honestly and thoughtfully, but I think they should also take it upon themselves to make sure that good work reaches the attention of readers. As entertaining as negative reviews can sometimes be to read, I’d much rather hear more about the stuff that’s actually worth my time and attention.

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