Wednesday, July 19, 2006

What are reviews for?

In a lengthy review of David Mitchell's Black Swan Green, Ruth Franklin discusses the state of reviews. She notes that negative reviews are still strong, but positive reviews have become weak and flabby.

The writer seeking fresh language with which to express her enthusiasm soon discovers that this particular vocabulary has been colonized by p.r. flacks whipping up empty, fluffy blurbs. The result is that all praise now feels like exaggerated praise.

She goes on to discuss the etiquette of current reviews and how they let everyone down. I wish popular reviews were more like academic reviews which, normally, make it easy for you to decide whether a given book is right for you. Yes, they are formulaic, but if you need to scan a few dozen books a week, do you want to puzzle out the meaning of each review? The reviewers in the popular world have become enamored of their own words, rather than the task at hand, which to put it bluntly, is to assist in a purchase decision. Perhaps this is too mercenary, and the writers seek to make their review of art, art. Pitchfork is of course the most guilty, but most of the popular press leans this way.

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