Critical Condition

Can a retailer-sponsored book review keep its critical hands clean?
February 25, 2010

Christopher Hayes is a European-style social democrat, who worked at the left-leaning In These Times before assuming his current job at the equally left-leaning Nation. Not too many decades ago, this exemplary progressive would likely have reviewed books for such highbrow bastions as Commentary or Dissent or (if he got lucky) The New York Review of Books. But this is 2010. So instead Hayes covers books for a promotional Web site run by the world’s largest book chain.

The art-and-commerce hybrid in question is The Barnes & Noble Review, which launched in October 2007. It came about when CEO Steve Riggio teamed up with James Mustich, publisher of A Common Reader, which had expired the previous year. In a sense, the Common Reader was a precursor to Mustich’s current project: a literate, highly respected catalogue of little-known titles, which CR not only sold but sometimes republished under its own imprint. But BNR, with its prominent placement on the Barnes & Noble site, arguably elevates corporate sponsorship of a literary publication to new levels.

One might think that independent-minded writers would be cold to the idea of reviewing books for a massive corporate entity. Yet respected names have flocked to BNR. Along with Hayes, such heavyweights as philosopher A. C. Grayling, music critic Robert Christgau, and cartoonist Ward Sutton are all regular contributors. So are Ezra Klein and Michael Dirda, both of The Washington Post, as well as prominent critics like Brooke Allen, Laura Miller, and Adam Kirsch. In an era when each week brings word of a collapsing literary magazine or shrinking newspaper section, BNR just may be the future of American book reviewing. And surprisingly, few authors, critics, or editors seem troubled by that.

Of course, it is difficult to find anybody pleased with the state of book reviewing (at least the newspaper variety) in the United States. The list of casualties is depressingly familiar. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Orlando Sentinel, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Chicago Tribune, The San Diego Union-Tribune, and the Raleigh News & Observer all have drastically scaled back their coverage of books. Both The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times collapsed their freestanding Sunday sections into the body of the paper.

The damage has been even deeper at smaller papers and regional magazines. Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of what arguably remains this country’s most prestigious reviewing medium, The New York Times Book Review, believes that “what is most in danger of being lost are the smaller, local papers that give authors direct, reader-friendly connections” to their audience. National outlets like The New Republic or The New Yorker, which survive on the strength of their political or cultural coverage, are unlikely to throw book criticism overboard. But it is the local newspapers that are hemorrhaging, argues Tanenhaus.

For newspaper owners, the standard defense is that they’re acceding to the realities of the market. A struggling business will cut where it can, goes the argument, and book coverage is no longer popular enough with readers or advertisers to justify its cost. Newspapers are simply giving the public what it wants.

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Some critics, however, see a more ominous development. They view the book review’s demise as an index of cultural decline. Either the public no longer likes to read, or has grown accustomed to getting its literary intelligence online—and for free. Both scenarios amount to bad news, Tanenhaus says. “People’s attention spans are shorter,” he says. “And the sense of the value of literature as a whole has been diminished.”

Others are not so sure. “It’s not a decline,” insists Louis Menand, a frequent book reviewer for The New Yorker. “It’s a shift.” He points to what he calls the “Zagatization” of book reviewing—a process spearheaded by Amazon, where a prospective reader may be offered thousands of capsule assessments of a particular title. Assigned a book review not long ago, Menand logged on to the e-commerce site to find twenty-five customer reviews already posted. “I suddenly felt very unnecessary,” he laughs. The days when figures like Edmund Wilson and Walter Lippmann ruled the critical (or political) roost are long gone, Menand says. “And that’s good in principle,” he adds, “because it means that more people are writing on more products.”

Purists might blanch at this demotion of books to mere product, but Mustich takes the argument a step further, asserting that the success of BNR turns the dire prophecies on their heads. “It’s a sign of cultural energy that a book chain is supporting a venture with credibility,” he says.

Mustich suggests that print reviews have assisted in digging their own graves. A major reason that they’re dying, he believes, is that they’re boring. “They didn’t engage readers in a fresh way,” he says. “Many [print] reviews are formulaic, focusing more on assessments than on replicating the excitement of reading a book.” Mustich also faults the analytical slant taken by many reviewers, which may cause them to overlook the fact that readers love books even when they’re not perfect.

Whether the print review makes a comeback or slinks off to oblivion, Mustich thinks the act of reading itself is in healthy shape. “There is a tendency in the book industry to see the decline of print as due to people reading less,” he says. “But I think people are reading more.”

The numbers seem to belie Mustich’s optimism. A 2007 report by the National Endowment for the Arts found that despite rising education levels and the ubiquity of Twilight and Harry Potter, citizens are reading less—in almost every age group. More and more Americans are declining to read even a single book per year. If we are to believe these statistics, book reviews may be dying simply because people read less of everything.

True, the NEA report was criticized for what some considered its flawed methodology. In particular, noted Steven Johnson in the Guardian, the report was “heavily biased towards words on a printed page,” versus their online counterparts. The NEA fired back, pointing out that the study was careful to measure online reading habits as well as consumption of the printed page—the trends were still disturbing. At the same time, the authors cited a British Library study highlighting the shallow analytical and critical skills associated with Web reading. “Society is dumbing down,” that report had bluntly concluded.

Score one for the pessimists! Or maybe not: fans of BNR would argue that merely by existing, it is a rebuke to those who fret that the book will soon be as obsolete as the phonograph. The online publication is not only surviving, it is growing, even flourishing. Mustich will not give specific figures, but in December 2009 the site reached 50,000 unique visitors, its highest number so far, according to, a site that measures Web traffic. And Mustich is determined to tinker with the book-review form itself. “We’re going to experiment with slide shows and illustrated reviews,” he says, although it’s not clear how these multimedia accoutrements will revolutionize a supposedly moribund genre.

Indeed, what’s notable about BNR is how traditional the writing is. “The reviews [at BNR] work the same as anywhere else,” says Laura Miller, a staff writer at Salon who has also written for Mustich’s site. Miller says the tone and length of the pieces in BNR evoke The New York Times Book Review rather than the relative informality of Salon. So even if Mustich finds print reviewing dull, it’s not clear that his own site is doing anything differently when it comes down to actual prose.

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 contributing writer at Salon and the Christian Science Monitor.