Inside the Critics’ Circle: Book Reviewing in Uncertain Times by Phillipa K Chong - review by David Gelber

David Gelber

Heroic Work in a Very Important Field

Inside the Critics’ Circle: Book Reviewing in Uncertain Times


Princeton University Press 178pp £25 order from our bookshop

Uncertain why you are reading this? Good, because I’m not any more certain why I’m writing it. It’s not for material gain – contrary to rumours creeping through the darker reaches of the web, this magazine does not offer reviewers a gull’s egg per word by way of remuneration. Nor, so far, has reviewing brought your author literary laureatedom or landed him a daytime television show. It has, though, elicited extended middle fingers, pirouettes on heels and smacks across the bottom (metaphorically, at least). For, as Phillipa Chong notes in Inside the Critics’ Circle, book reviewing can be an expressway to losing friends and alienating people.

Perhaps eager to get her blows in first, Chong spends much of the opening chapter trying her hardest to lose readers and alienate reviewers. ‘The distinction between low and high epistemic uncertainty broadly relates to the distinction drawn between quality uncertainty and radical quality uncertainty, respectively,’ she writes. This sort of stuff returns in the closing pages, which I’m certain – radically certain – you can skip.

In between, Chong offers a more relaxed audit of the state of reviewing in the 21st century. Her concern is with the book review as traditionally understood: a piece of literary criticism published in the press with the purpose of steering readers towards works that merit attention. And ‘concern’ is the operative word. She believes that book reviewing is facing an ‘existential crisis’, threatened by the shrinking of books pages in newspapers, the advent of online consumer reviews and the withering of literature in public esteem. All of this has led to the virtual extinction of the full-time book critic, whose functions have been taken up by a range of jobbing writers for whom reviewing is merely an intermittent occupation.

Chong’s purpose is not so much to prescribe antidotes to this sickness than to study, in the manner of a field observer, how it is affecting those most susceptible to it: reviewers themselves. Her analysis is based on fiction reviewing in the USA. Her understanding of the activity, it is safe to say, is rather more prosaic than that of Francis Jeffrey, founding father of the modern review, who believed that the ‘humble task of pronouncing on the mere literary merits’ of a book was only half the job, and that reviewers should also supply ‘larger views of the great objects of human pursuit’. ‘Book reviewers’, Chong writes, ‘are examples of market intermediaries: third parties who mediate between producers (writers and publishers) and audiences (readers), and whose interventions shape how the objects under scrutiny (books) subsequently come to be valued.’

Over the course of two chapters, Chong describes the process of reviewing in each of its various stages: ‘Once critics have accepted a review assignment, their next task is to read the book.’ It’s difficult not to admire her determination to ensure that no detail, however small, is overlooked, but it does at times feel as though one is reading a car manual that begins with an injunction to unlock the door. Along the way, she observes that many reviewers find it useful to quote directly from the books they are considering – ‘to show rather than just tell’. It’s a good principle, but not one that Chong adheres to, since she doesn’t provide a single example of the object of her investigation. The proverbial alien from outer space hoping to glean from Inside the Critics’ Circle a basic understanding of what a book review actually looks like could spend a thousand years scouring its pages for a specimen and still return to Planet K2-288Bb none the wiser.

What Chong offers instead is selected highlights from the interviews she has conducted with some forty reviewers, whom, in the spirit of scientific enquiry, she has anonymised. The two chapters in which she considers the different forces that weigh on them as they compose reviews are easily the most original in the book.

The quality of the novel under review, Chong argues, is just one of many considerations confronting the critic – and by no means the most significant. Uniquely in the field of criticism, she points out, book reviewers are often authors themselves, and so produce the type of work they are evaluating. Directors, by contrast, don’t typically write film reviews, any more than chefs review restaurants. This, she claims, introduces a further set of preoccupations into the equation. Authors assuming the role of critic have to reckon with their own experiences and aspirations. How their works have been received in the past conditions their approach to reviewing. Perhaps more important still are anxieties over what repercussions might follow for their standing in the literary community and how their own works will be reviewed. All of this, Chong argues, fosters a predisposition to play safe: ‘do unto others as you would have done unto you’ becomes the governing commandment.

The exception, Chong claims, comes when a reviewer is sent the novel of a megastar author, such as Salman Rushdie. And the effect is not as you’d expect. Far from collapsing into a stupor of adulation when confronted with Literary Greatness, reviewers will don knuckle-dusters. Chong refers to this phenomenon as ‘punching up’ and she identifies several entirely respectable reasons for it, such as envy, malice and spite.

She doesn’t, of course, call them this. Attempting to rationalise such motivations, Chong claims that the review is the one forum where the struggling writer can correct the injustice that sees high-profile authors enjoy such bonanzas as invitations to Belarusian book festivals and launch parties where guests don’t have to bring their own bottles for producing fare that wouldn’t look out of place on the back of a cornflake packet, while the rest are reduced to living off cornflakes. Yet rationalising only gets you so far. One is reminded, reading Chong’s explanation, of the Chihuahua that howls at an aeroplane overhead but is mildness personified towards a Pekingese on the opposite side of the street. Reviewers, it seems, will bare their teeth only to those who show no sign of paying them a moment’s attention.

Throughout this worthy book, Chong is just a little bit too reasonable to be taken seriously. In the same way that she can’t quite bring herself to name back-slapping and score-settling for what they are, she skirts over the many tricks of the reviewer’s trade. There is no mention, for instance, of the plagiarism (particularly plagiarism of the dust jacket) without which the literary pages of some newspapers would barely exist. And for all Chong’s gloom and doom, the fact remains that many more people read a review of a new release than will ever read the book itself. How would dinner conversations at the Groucho Club ever get going otherwise?

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