Friday, February 15, 2013

WTFriday: Meta-review

Harper's online is running an archive piece from 1959 in which writer Elizabeth Hardwick complains that book reviews have become too blandly positive. I guess this is less of a WTF moment than an occasion to appreciate the irony of a five-page review written on the state of reviews and a 54-year old opinion is still voiced today. It's kind of like that quote from Socrates about how the hipster kids in his day were rebellious and had awful table manners.

To the extent that the literati raise this grievance today, I suspect that it has more to do with the proliferation of book blogs, Amazon reviews, and Goodreads and the corollary question of who reads New York Times reviews when there are plenty of other opinions out there.

To return to Hardwick's argument and play devil's advocate, some of what frustrates Hardwick appears to be an admission of subjectivity and a more practiced sense of balance among many reviewers. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing probably depends on whether you read reviews for entertainment value, in which case a more polemical stance is obviously more entertaining, or whether you read reviews to build your own reading list, in which case a mix of a book's strengths and weaknesses and caveats about the reviewer's own biases and tastes are extremely helpful.

Or whether you read reviews at all.

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