Nor is it clear how BNR will ultimately cope with its overt commercialism, which is embodied in its very name. Mustich admits that he expects some initial skepticism from readers, who might well suspect the site to be a public relations gambit on the part of its parent company. “We counter that skepticism with quality,” he argues. “If people read the site, they can determine that we are doing what we purport to do.” He draws a sharp distinction between reviewing and selling, and is adamant about his independence. “They have never tried to influence my judgment. The first attempt would have been the last,” he declares, sounding like a nerdy Dirty Harry.

Not everyone is convinced. “Criticism’s content should be free of any commercialism,” says Art Winslow, a former literary editor at The Nation. Barnes & Noble is a brand name, and BNR contributors are in effect endorsing it, he says: “Barnes & Noble has found another way to sell books, and that’s the Review.” Winslow says the motivations that go into the site inevitably taint its integrity. “I wouldn’t write there.”

Even Winslow, however, concedes that BNR retains a strong measure of editorial independence from its corporate overlords. Reviewers (who are, not incidentally, paid more than they would receive at a print publication, thanks to the largesse of Steve Riggio) are permitted to blast away at the product without any thought given to lost sales. Christopher Hayes, for example, took on Ralph Nader’s recent novel, Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! , and delivered a devastating verdict. “As a novel it is a dismal affair: gracelessly written, ploddingly plotted, and long,” he wrote. “Oh God so long. And as a political tract it advances a conception of politics both grossly condescending and depressingly elitist.” Surely that is about as far from a breathless blurb as one could imagine—it’s more like a warning from the surgeon general.

On the other hand, there is an “Add to Cart” button next to Hayes’s takedown: a reminder that all those deflationary adjectives are sponsored by a retailer. But Mustich reiterates his claim of editorial autonomy, which he says has been the rule from the very beginning. Hayes and Miller both corroborate this claim, with the latter declaring that the site may be “blue-chip soon,” so high is its quality.

Mustich’s undertaking hardly marks the first fusion of commerce and criticism. There is Amazon’s experimentation with both in-house and customer reviews, and The Reader’s Catalog (a 1,382-page behemoth floated by Random House in 1989, like A Common Reader on steroids). Even The New York Review of Books has its own line of books, relentlessly hawked in the magazine’s pages. BNR may take this collusion a step further, but it is a difference in degree, not kind. As Hayes put it, “It’s like the lines from the Bob Dylan song: ‘It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.’ ”

 

Jordan Michael Smith is a writer in Washington, D.C. He frequently reviews books for the Christian Science Monitor and Slate.