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the Complete Review
the complete review - book reviewing

Faint Praise

Gail Pool

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To purchase Faint Praise

Title: Faint Praise
Author: Gail Pool
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2007
Length: 140 pages
Availability: Faint Praise - US
Faint Praise - UK
Faint Praise - Canada
  • The Plight of Book Reviewing in America

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Our Assessment:

A- : solid overview and discussion

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Boston Globe A 27/10/2007 Steve Weinberg
The New Republic . 10/12/2007 James Wolcott

  From the Reviews:
  • "Pool's book is timely. It is also well-conceived and well-researched. In fact, it is difficult to imagine a more thoughtful, informative book about the work I've done for nearly 40 years. (...) Following her smart historical summary, Pool deals, chapter by chapter, with the major issues (.....) Those who absorb Pool's polemic will quite likely never read book reviews the same way again." - Steve Weinberg, Boston Globe

  • "If Faint Praise has a virtuous flaw, it's that it thinks too small, is too practical-minded, and doesn't make ample room for the occasional healthy rampage. It lays so much stress on the stringencies of book reviewing, the shortfalls and iron deficiencies of the form, that it is hard to understand why anyone other than a masochist, a worker drone, or an antennaequivering opportunist would take it up except to notch a byline. Its funky sense of battle fatigue reflects the mood in the editorial trenches, where nothing beckons on the horizon except more bad news. Even the title, Faint Praise, sounds wan and droopy, as if the most that reviews can achieve now is to rack up small yardage, provide a useful service. We're going to have to make do with making do, is the book's sober message." - James Wolcott, The New Republic

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Surely book reviewers all across the United States are eager to review Faint Praise. What book reviewer wouldn't want the opportunity to review a book about their craft -- if only for the opportunity to add their own two cents about the rights and wrongs of the state of reviewing in contemporary America ? But will editors let them loose on it ? After all, Faint Praise is devoted to a subject that would seem of rather limited interest. It probably didn't make anyone's list of this summer's likely blockbusters, or even books to look out for. (And it is published by a university press, and not even one of the larger ones .....)
       In fact, what responsible book review editor wouldn't cover it ? Their audience consists of readers who do read book reviews, and Gail Pool's book (or at least a discussion of it) raises questions and issues that should be of interest and concern to those who read and (possibly) rely on book reviews as much as those who write them.
       (One hopes book review editors would also cover the book because it gives them an opportunity to explain themselves and their philosophies: among Pool's many complaints is that editors stay too much in the background, not explaining the choices they have made in what books get covered and who is assigned reviews, etc.)
       Pool's book offers a good overview of (American) book reviewing. Along with much else, it usefully illustrates that most of the complaints about reviewing are as old as the field itself: great books have been neglected, many reviews are poorly written, reviewers don't get paid enough, etc. etc. Pool begins each of her chapters with entertaining illustrative quotes underlining this, as well as offering examples and quotes throughout the text that leave no doubt that there's little new as far as complaints about all aspects of reviewing go.
       The book is well organised, with separate chapters devoted to the major issues. 'Unnatural Selection', for example, looks at which books get reviewed and which don't, noting that there are far too many books to consider -- and the problematic ways in which that pool is pared down to a manageable number. 'The Match' looks at pairing the right reviewer with a book, while 'Getting it Right' concerns itself with the mistakes found and made in book reviews, from factual errors to sloppy writing. Pool considers all sorts of issues that arise, making for an in-depth look behind the scenes and while most of what is mentioned may be familiar to those in the trade it should be of particular interest to the casual reader who probably isn't aware of many of the factors involved in the publishing of book reviews.
       After providing this overview, Pool also asks: 'Are Book Reviews necessary ?' -- coming down firmly in favour of serious, critical reviews. The availability of information (of -- generally uncritical and commercial -- sorts) about books may have increased greatly, but she still sees a need for: "commentary that is impartial, informed, and critical" (and thinks reviews are best suited to provide that).
       It's not just -- or even primarily -- a question of more reviews, or fewer newspapers dropping their book-sections and substituting wire copy. Pool is particularly concerned with the state of reviews themselves: she wants to see better reviews, and an improved culture of reviewing. Her closing chapter offers some suggestions as to what can be done. Among them: she wants book editors -- the major decision-makers on everything from what books are selected for review to who is assigned the review -- to be less invisible, and offer more editorial commentary. She also suggests that at newspapers columnists (with their expertise in specific areas) be enlisted to help in selecting books for review. And as far as hiring reviewers goes, she'd like to see those with critical competence selected ahead of authors who happen to have published some fiction or a book in an unrelated field.

        Faint Praise is a thorough look at the current state of book reviewing in America, but also very readable. The examples are entertaining -- and revealing. In shedding light on the issues reviewers and book editors face (including everything from not getting review copies from publishers even when they request them to inappropriate assignments) the book should also appeal to anyone with any interest in the workings of the book-review-world. (Worth noting, also: the book's bibliography also serves as an excellent resource-list.)
       Pool does consider the role of the Internet, but perhaps not to the extent she should. Amazon.com and the reader-reviews there are mentioned, but are a bit too quickly dismissed -- it's not quite as simple as:

Only for "big" books are there hundreds of reader-reviews; for small books there are usually few, and most people suspect that these are written by friends and relatives and can't be trusted.
       More significantly, Pool also both underestimates personal websites and weblogs, and doesn't pay adequate attention to dedicated review-sites. Certainly, as far as seeking out (and being open to) a wider range of books (including especially small, independent, and university press titles) an impressive number of sites put most newspaper book-coverage to shame. And, while many sites and weblogs do feature distinctive personal viewpoints and often offer little more than opinion-pieces there are a growing number that do offer what must be considered serious criticism (i.e. reviews that meet most of her criteria) -- and, not surprisingly, these are sites that tend to have some editorial oversight.
       (She also writes that "editors of personal Web sites and blogs [...] aren't sent a broad range of thousands of books to select from", though the anecdotal evidence we've come across suggests that quite a few leading literary weblogs are indeed inundated with submissions of that order of magnitude. The complete review is a bit more than a personal website, but it's certainly all we can do to stem the flood of review-copies we receive (which, however, still doesn't mean we get everything we ask for ... a problem Pool notes is surprisingly common even when a publication is an obvious fit for a title).)

        Faint Praise can certainly be recommended to anyone interested in book reviews (especially given the absence of other titles covering the subject-matter), and it does what it sets out to do -- describe 'The Plight of Book Reviewing in America' and offer some suggestions as to what can be done to improve the situation -- very well.

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Faint Praise: Reviews: National Book Critics Circle: Gail Pool: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Gail Pool has worked as a book reviewer, editor, and book columnist.

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© 2007-2022 the complete review

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