George Orwell once called book reviewing "a quite exceptionally thankless, irritating and exhausting job" in which the reviewer is "pouring his spirit down the drain, half a pint at a time."
"In much more than nine cases out of ten," Orwell wrote, "the only objectively truthful criticism would be, 'This book is worthless.' "
Orwell's cynicism notwithstanding, writers and would-be writers throughout the country are forever besieging newspaper book review editors for the opportunity to review books.
One of the biggest problems facing book review editors is to choose good reviewers from among all these often inexperienced volunteers--and to persuade good, professional writers to write for them as well.
Which newspaper book review section does the best job of this? Which book review section is consistently the most interesting and enjoyable to read?
The Washington Post's Book World, according to a surprising number of people in publishing.
Esoteric N.Y. Times
"The New York Times (Book Review) is so strong there is no second place in terms of influence," says Peter Israel, president of G. P. Putnam's Sons, "but it's often too esoteric. . . . I enjoy reading the Post (Book World) more. As a consumer, I like the Post best."
Lisa Drew, a senior editor at William Morrow & Co., also prefers the Post's Book World.
"I have more confidence in the Post's reviews," she says. "With the Times, I'm sometimes suspicious . . . that the reviewer has an ax to grind."
With about one-third the space of the New York Times Book Review (and one-fourth the staff), the Post's Book World isn't nearly as complete as (and it doesn't begin to have the impact of) the New York Times, but--review for review--many in publishing say it's better written, better edited, more provocative, more attuned to popular taste and more attractively designed.
Most important of all, many publishing executives say, the Post does an excellent job of matching interesting reviewers with good books.
When fighter pilot/test pilot Chuck Yeager's autobiography was published earlier this year, for example, the Post assigned the review to novelist James Salter, who had also been a fighter pilot and whose first two novels were about flying.
Salter's review was published on the front page of the Post's Book World--where the Post has also published reviews of recent novels by James Michener, Stephen King and Kurt Vonnegut, as well as books on the making of the movie "Heaven's Gate," a recent biography of Norman Mailer and Betty Rollin's controversial account of her role in her mother's suicide.
None of these books was reviewed on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, which--despite recent changes--is still, in many ways, more a serious, intellectual journal than a popular book review.
Too often, critics say, the New York Times Book Review is predictable--even boring.
Decided to Do Something
Some critics of the New York Times may take special pleasure in praising the rival Washington Post at the Times' expense, of course, but Brigitte Weeks, the 42-year-old, British-born editor of Book World, is very highly regarded in publishing circles on her own terms, and she and her three assistant editors produce a solid, highly readable section almost every week. (The presence in the section of Jonathan Yardley, who joined the Post after winning a Pulitzer Prize for his book reviews at the Washington Star, also contributes significantly to Book World's reputation.)
Apart from the Washington Post and New York Times, what other newspapers do a good job with books?
"Book reviewing in this country just isn't as good, doesn't have the tradition it does in England," says John Baker, editor of Publishers Weekly. "Too many papers just use local academics, rather than real writers and real experts . . . and that makes the reviews pretty dull, not like the wide-ranging, authoritative, thoughtful . . . well-written reviews you get in the (London) Times Literary Supplement."
John Leonard says that when he began his four-year tenure as editor of the New York Times Book Review in 1971, he decided to do something about the tedious, professorial quality of most book reviews.
"I didn't want the assistant professor of whales to review 'Moby Dick' anymore," he says. "I wanted novelists reviewing fiction for us."
The experiment was not a success.
"The reviews came out about the same way they had with the assistant professors writing them," Leonard says. "One-third of them were dull, like high school book reports; one-third were so understanding, so full of mercy that they had no judgments; one-third were full of spite and envy and a determination to keep the competition down."