30 January 2004

If anybody needs more proof that Janet Maslin (an overly influential reviewer at the New York Times) needs a reality check, just try reading her breezy, meaningless whirl through a potpourri of recently released "bestsellers" (and by whose definition and on the basis of what hard data, I wonder… or is this just another self-fulfilling prophecy?) in today's Times. As noted at Publisher's Lunch (sorry, it's an e-mail newsletter, but you can subscribe for free), she breezes through ten books in less than 1700 words. Here's an example:

John Grisham's latest novel is one. His books have a way of hitting best-seller lists (with advance orders online) long before anyone even knows what they are. By happy coincidence, "The Last Juror" turns out to be one of his best: a thoughtful and atmospheric thriller that for the first time brings the author back to the fictionalized town of Clanton, Miss. This is the setting for another of his best efforts, "A Time to Kill." The Grisham brand name renders these assets superfluous. Whether they're forceful or meandering, quick or pokey, his books have a track record that proves them Pavlovian stimuli to loyal readers. He writes it; you buy it, even if it's blank or "Bleachers." That's a formula as simple as "Who Moved My Cheese?"

That is the entire review—not one word of substance. And that 150-word average is misleading; almost 30% of the article is devoted to a single, meaningless book.

I find the intellectual dishonesty of this approach quite disturbing. Leaving aside for the moment whether a reviewer has an obligation to say why he or she came to a particular conclusion about a book—I think he or she does, but I'm clearly in the minority—the approach Maslin took is more akin to the celebrity endorsement than even the crappy sixth-grade book report approach that dominates the publishing industry's favorite sources of book reviews and even infects the publishing-category magazines (Locus, Chronicle, Romantic Times, and so on). That's right—a book reviewer acting like a celebrity. That says volumes about both the industry and its inability to realize that its problems are self-inflicted.

That Ms. Maslin's judgment is suspect in any event is beside the point. The real judgment problem here is with the editor who found the article acceptable. Someone coming cold to "reviews" like this would begin to wonder how much the various publishers were contributing in endorsement fees. The reality is, sadly, worse: personal vendettas are far more influential. But that is for another time.