Discover more from Just the Facts with Gerald Posner
Book reviews. They certainly don’t make them like they used to.
Today’s “Banning the Negative Book Review” in The New York Times, about BuzzFeed’s decision not to run negative reviews, is a vivid reminder of how book reviews have changed over a few decades. Today’s self-published authors wait for new user reviews on Amazon with virtually the same anticipation that we back-in-the-day authors waited for major newspaper reviews.
In the eighties and nineties, every author I knew wanted two reviews more than any other: the Sunday and daily New York Times. The Sunday reviews could be long or ‘in brief,’ but since the book supplement was mailed to subscribers days the paper hit the stands, we knew before most ordinary NYT readers if the review was thumbs up or down.
The tougher review to nab was the daily. There were only 313 daily reviews a year (none on Sundays).
If you took away those writers who were publishing that year and guaranteed to get a review (the Norman Mailers, Philip Roths, Thomas Pynchons, etc), there were at most 100 days left for midlist writers with books of interest.
Considering there were up to 50,000 books published annually by conventional publishers – self-publishing then was dubbed vanity publishing, not nearly as widespread accepted as it is today – merely being selected for a NY Times daily was a coup. Once you knew you had it, then there were days of nervous anticipation about which of the paper’s several reviewers had selected your book, and more important whether if it would be a rave or a pan.
Trisha and I lived for many years in midtown Manhattan. Our 28th-floor apartment overlooked a corner newsstand. The next day newspapers were delivered to the city’s newsstands just before midnight. Trisha and I had a tiny pair of binoculars, and we’d take turns from about 11:30 pm looking out for the NYT truck or to spot a delivered stack of bundled papers. Once they were there, I’d head downstairs and buy a copy, while Trisha stayed upstairs doing some mojo trying to make the review a good one. With my stomach twisted in nerves, I’d read the review while walking back the one block to our apartment building (a torrential rainstorm the night I picked up Christopher Lehmann-Haupt’s review of Hitler’s Children meant by the time I made it home the paper was virtually unreadable).
It is impossible to ever duplicate that combination of anticipatory anxiety and follow-up thrill that accompanied each of those nights when the ‘paper of record’ weighed in with a good review. But none of us had any illusions. We read the book review daily, and we all cringed when finding a scorching critique on a colleague’s book. The pens of the Times’ critics could often be sharp and devastating. Those were the moments when writers wished they had not been selected for a daily review, but by then it was in print and far too late.
Today’s news about the BuzzFeed decision not to run bad reviews is just another indicator of where publishing has come. It’s the equivalent of every student on a competitive team in school receiving a medal. No winners, no losers. Not surprising given that just a few years ago a French academic living in Israel sued a German law scholar and an NYU professor, for a scorching review of her book. Adding to the feel-good aura is what Forbes revealed earlier this year about Amazon, “that as many as 30% of user-generated reviews are phony.”
Undoubtedly, traditional newspaper reviews have less impact than in days past. Maybe only my colleagues and those who work in publishing or media pay close attention. And to many young digital readers, there is little or no difference between a review by a professional critic or an Amazon super reviewer.
Book reviews. They certainly don’t write them like they used to.