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Views From Publisher's RowBy Marie Arana-Ward
Sunday, June 1, 1997
If you are reading this, chances are you are a book lover -- a steadfast member of a hard-core readership. Chances are you are here because you seek a way through the labyrinth of 50,000 titles published every year in this country. You read reviews, you buy books. But how critics influence your reading habits is an increasingly baffling mechanism in the machinery of the book business. Do book reviews make or break books, or are they just magpie natterings in the passing parade of American publishing? It is a question we ask ourselves every day.
The point interests me particularly because, after many years as a book editor, I have "crossed over" to criticism, a heresy seen in publishing circles as somewhat akin to going from midwife to embalmer. From laboring in the fragrant kitchens of possibility to eyeing the carcass through a cocked lorgnette.
And, if I were to be honest, I'd have to admit a weakness my purer Book World colleagues probably have suspected all along: I'm soft on books. When no one's looking, I'm inclined to wink them by. I've walked their walk, known their frailties, felt their pain.
"Asking a working writer what he feels about critics," said the playwright John Osborne, "is like asking a lamppost what it feels about dogs." Well, asking people in publishing about the business of criticism is one small degree of separation from asking the lamppost, but that's precisely whom we approached to gauge the role of the contemporary book review. And the answer was universally on the side of the dogs. Most agreed that critics should be tough, that standards of excellence should be maintained, that if hard truths needed to be told about the merits of a work, so be it. "The problem is," as Irish critic Fintan O'Toole has written, "that just as everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die, everybody wants rigorous, incisive and fearless criticism, so long as it is aimed at somebody else."
One thing is clear: A great paradox is at work in the marketplace of books. On the one hand, there are blockbusters whose fates are impervious to reviews, driven by personalities, Hollywood afterlives and author appearances on television talk shows. On the other, there are books whose futures are played out on the review page -- with lesser-known authors, potentially long shelf lives and better shots at the literary prizes. According to Washington literary agent Rafael Sagalyn, the paradox rests in the fact that although part of the industry is relying less on reviews, another needs them more than ever.
The sheer profusion of books being published today gives book review editors a newfound power. The question is not only whether a book gets received positively or negatively, but whether it gets received at all. Says Sagalyn: "For the books that don't get mentioned on the Today show or Oprah" -- and that would be the great majority of them -- "a review is essential. It's harder than ever to get even the major books timely attention, but much worse is the situation in which a book is ignored altogether. I can't tell you how often I hear my fellow agents groan, 'If only they'd assigned the book!' " The reading public needs reviews, says Sagalyn, not only to be told whether books are worthy, but to be made aware that they exist. Walk into a '90s bookstore and, unless you are well-informed, the rows and stacks of books will overwhelm you. And if you are overwhelmed, you are less likely to buy. Lamppost or no, the publisher is linked to the critic.
"For an editor like me," says Morgan Entrekin, head of Atlantic Monthly Press, "print reviews are lifeblood." Entrekin, who recently published John Lee Anderson's biography of South American revolutionary Che Guevara, claims that without notice in newspapers and magazines around the country, such a book would languish in the stores. The subject is too esoteric for most Americans, and the author a virtual unknown. Most of the books Entrekin publishes fall under this category. He worries about first novels -- Charles Frazier's forthcoming Cold Mountain, for instance, a Civil War love story in which his company has invested much hope and advance publicity. "For books like these, so much depends on the reviews," Entrekin says. Jack Shoemaker, president of Washington D.C.'s Counterpoint Press and publisher of the prize-winning Women in Their Beds by Gina Berriault, goes one step further: "For the vast majority of titles out there, book reviews mean sales."
Not everyone feels that way. Judith Regan, who has earned publishers millions of dollars via Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh, and Wally Lamb (She's Come Undone), and now heads her own imprint at HarperCollins, calls the book review circuit "a negative culture." "I don't really read them," she says. For her, the more important task is getting her authors on radio or television, or written about on editorial and feature pages. "My target is the ordinary American. Not the elite. The book world is a pretty small place."
Twenty-five years ago, when Book World first hung out its shingle, the electronic media Regan describes simply weren't there for books. That was when books were simply books, not marketing opportunities. In those days, an author shipped off a manuscript to an editor, the publisher invested in it, and if it was well reviewed, it sold copies. Today, the whole process of acquisition has changed. With the press of a button, publishers can call up exactly how many copies an author's works have sold at the chain stores. And woe to you if you're an author trailing a poor sales record and pitching a new book idea.
Another change is that editors now buy books with an eye to the author's promotability. Is the writer telegenic? Good. Does his voice carry well on the radio? Better yet. Is she outgoing enough to handle a major book tour? Sign her on.
In the old days, a front page review in a major newspaper was reason for celebration. That may still be true in literary circles, but editors in big, commercial houses today chew their pencils when one of their books is reviewed on the front page of the New York Times. Will people think it too intellectual? The mantra among some marketing directors is that the books that review editors put on their front pages tend to be the books that never sell. They call it the kiss of death.
Many who labor in the halls of publishing feel that it's not that book reviews have any less impact, it's that they are not as good as they used to be. "Reviewers today are overwhelmed by marketing hype," says Nan Talese, editor of Pat Conroy and Margaret Atwood and head of her own imprint at Doubleday. "Sometimes they respond more to the hype than to the book itself." She finds many contemporary critics excruciatingly self-conscious -- more absorbed in their own reputations than in duty or craft.
Ideally, reviewers should own up to the fact that they represent no one but themselves. As O'Toole says, they should realize that they do not speak for "the art form, not even in any real sense for the newspapers that employ them." Their job is to report on what a book contains and how well it does the job it set out to do, "not to sell books . . . not to reform or mould the practice of writing them . . . and not to maintain, as arbiters of taste and value, the authority of the institutions who print their opinions."
"They should get news to the reader," says Talese, "in a voice of reason and calm. That's what the public wants." She laments that in the past readers had many critics they could turn to for consistent, reliable commentary. Today those critics are few. "I actually heard one book review editor say that she saw herself as 'a gatekeeper of culture.' Can you imagine that? Gatekeeper? Too many think of themselves in those terms. That's the sort of arrogance that poisons the review business."
"Twenty-five years ago, readers followed the work of reviewers they trusted and admired," says Counterpoint's Shoemaker. "Today, it's not uncommon to discover that more than half the reviews you read are by people you've never heard of, with no apparent credentials." That may explain, he says, why a book can get a great review and still sink like a stone. The public has no faith in the endorsement. "This town," says Shoemaker referring to Washington, "happens to be blessed with three or four reviewers who are trusted and who do their homework. That just isn't the case in the rest of the country."
"I like it when writers on staff at The Post review books," says Random House's Kate Medina, editor of Robert Coles and Alice Walker. "I like to know that what I'm reading is reliable."
It's the shoddiness of many review organs that worries publishers. Assignments that bespeak a lack of judgment. Clunky retellings that make novels seem tedious or give the plot away. Self-indulgent pieces that end up telling you more about the reviewer than about the book. Mean-spirited screeds by those who begrudge a certain kind of success. "And the fact that they're so seldom edited!" says Talese.
The State of the Art
Everyone agrees that no one review can kill a book. But a reviewer who falls in love with a book can make an enormous difference. It happened in 1973 when John Updike fell in love with Fear of Flying, by then unknown Erica Jong. It happened in 1984 when the late Reid Beddow, an assistant editor at Book World, fell in love with an Annapolis businessman's novel published by the Naval Institute Press: its name, The Hunt for Red October; its author, Tom Clancy. And it happened in 1994 when Jonathan Yardley fell in love with an obscure memoir about Savannah, John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which still lingers on bestseller lists.
"The hardest thing we publishers face is getting the word over the wall," says Talese. "The noise level created by the electronic media is so high. But every once in a while you read a truly talented writer addressing a book intelligently, and that makes it all worthwhile. Even if the review is critical." What should be everyone's goal, she says, is the support of good writing, and the promotion of print in the face of all its attendant competition. "Newspapers that cut back on book review sections end up shooting themselves in the foot," Talese says. "Readers of print end up not getting enough information about print."
But the most important thing about the book review industry, according to agent Sagalyn, is the one thing that hasn't changed at all in the past 25 years: its staunch impermeability. "The medium is a wonderfully untarnished part of the publishing process. In my experience, no amount of PR seems to have an effect on how a review will turn out." And that -- between you, me, and the lamp-post -- is as it should be.
Marie Arana-Ward, deputy editor of Book World, was formerly vice president and senior editor at Simon & Schuster and Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. She can be reached at email@example.com.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company