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January 11, 2007


Brian F.

Do you think gushing reviews come from a "need" to create a pull quote? When you're writing a review, do you ever say to yourself "If they decide to use this to publicize the book, how will this sentence look?" I'm just curious.

I don't know that it SHOULD enter how a book is reviewed but I wonder if gushy reviewers fall over themselves to craft a great pull-quote.

Roddy Reta

It seems to me that book reviewing is a business and your business is to provide positive reviews to books. Let's face it, if you mostly give negative reviews, you will become a pariah to publishers and media outlets.

David J. Montgomery

In my experience, Roddy, that simply isn't true. If anything, I've been urged by the editors I write for to do more negative reviews (and then only in general, not for any specific book).

I've never had the slightest bit of pressure to write positive reviews. The editorial content of my pieces has always been 100% my own.

Critics have no need to please publishers, so that's not relevant. They do need to please the papers or magazines they write for, in order to get work, but if they had their choice, I think many publications would rather you pan a book than praise it.

So I don't see that writing insincere positive reviews would have any benefit to one's career as a critic, and if anything it would cost you work, as you'd seem like a hack.

Bill Peschel

FWIW, I never had a problem with any review that ran in the newspapers I wrote for. In fact, I rarely received any kind of response from authors one way or another.

Steve Clackson

"Eureka!" he cries, and dashes off to write a glowing review. After having read so many books that weren't fresh, or weren't interesting, or weren't well-written, when the reviewer finds one that is, the book looks all the better by comparison."

With this statement you have kinda answered your own question? You have chosen not to write about the bad books before finding this one. I'm not saying thats bad just my perception.

David J. Montgomery

That might explain why the reviews are positive -- but not why they're so positive.

What I'm pondering is the gushing over books that seem mediocre.


If the reviewer succeeds in convincing the readership of amazingness where none exists, it immediately makes the reviewer The Only One With The Taste And Education To Recognize The Next Dostoevsky.


(1) Always remember Sturgeon's Revelation (after Theodore Sturgeon, 1918-1985, prominent American author of science fiction): "... ninety per cent of everything is crud."

(2) We live in an age of hyperbole. Everything is exaggerated beyond all limitations, or it won't even get noticed. Nobody gets irritated anymore, they get outraged. Pop singers are called "divas". Anything that might be considered representative of something is "iconic". I think over-enthusiastic reviewers merely reflect what is actually a general cultural trend, thrust upon us by advertisers and propagandists.

Elaine Flinn

Now that you've got us all going here, David - please DO let us know why you think some reviewers 'over-praise books'. I have a few thoughts of my own, but I get into enough trouble as it is - so I'd rather hear yours. :)

Pari Noskin Taichert

Interesting post, David.

I had several responses.

1. Ah, hell. Another reason to get depressed about the number of books being published today. I can just see you wading through oceans of pages.

2. I was recently on a committee to judge for a national contest. There were many okay entrants -- and the more I received, the more the few wondrous ones stuck out. So, you're right about numbers.

3. JWL is correct that hyperbole is becoming the norm. Eventually, we'll swing back in the other direction. At least I hope so.

4. In response to Roddy -- the reviewer's responsibility is to review. Credible reviewers gain their reputations based on truths as they perceive them.

Without both positive and negative reviews, we can't make informed decisions as consumers.

If a reviewer only provides one angle, he or she becomes less useful to me.

Alexandra Sokoloff

Maybe this is just a Hollywood thing, but there are film reviewers who are known to hyperbolically praise everything because that guarantees they'll get their name and quote in the ads. Is there maybe some similar motivation with some book reviewers?

I'm cynical, but practical: a lot of reviewers also aspire to writing careers, and widely-read reviews are a good way for them to build a name and connections.


David Thayer

David, I found your thread and the responses thought provoking. Alexandra describes me to a tee, first and foremost a novelist trying to launch a career. I read for different reasons than a civilian, I read to learn, to appreciate craft, finally for enjoyment. Publishers send me books every week and I crack them open hoping to enjoy them, If I don't like them I have to ask myself why. It is envy or an honest reaction?
I try to give books more than one read and flush out my own angst before appreciating what is on the page.

Janice Harayda

What a fascinating series of posts! Thanks for opening up this topic, David.

It was heartening to hear that you're never felt pressure to write a positive review. I wonder if one reason for this is that you don't write for women's magazines. If you look at the reviews and other articles on books in major women's magazines, they are virtually all positive. Any slightly negative comments appear in the context of an overall favorable review. Writers who get assignments from these magazines know their reviews or articles won't get published unless they're generally favorable, so I suspect there's a lot of self-censorship going on, or telling half-truths.

This has partly to do with the desire of magazine advertisers to advertise their books in what they see as a "positive entironment" (meaning no negative articles about their products or even their industry). The situation is different at newspapers, where there's a thicker wall between editorial and advertising content. But even at newspapers, some book editors prefer to give positive reviews to certain kinds of books, including those by hometown authors.

I dealt some of these pressures in a Jan. 12 post on my blog, One-Minute Book Reviews, praising Entertainment Weekly for being one of the few magazines left that still publishes a list of the "5 Worst" books of the year in addition to the "5 Best." EW isn't a magazine I normally read, but by my lights, it deserves credit on this one.

Jan Harayda
One-Minute Book Reviews

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David J. Montgomery is a writer and critic specializing in books and publishing. He is an emeritus columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and The Daily Beast, and has also written for USA Today, the Washington Post, and other fine publications. A former professor of History, he lives in Northern Virginia with his wife and two daughters.

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