Book reviewing is among the commonest practices of literary journalism but it has been rarely explored from the sociological perspective. In her latest book Inside the Critics’ Circle: Book Reviewing in Uncertain Times, Phillipa K. Chong of McMaster University, critically parses the sociology of journalistic evaluation of fiction with her spontaneity of ideas, and thus provides an insightful account of inner workings of writing and publishing book reviews. Although the book is overwhelmingly imbued with complex theoretical undertones, Chong has the knack of presenting such abstruse ideas in an interesting manner with her sharp wit and clarity of thoughts.
Making a choice
Divided into three parts, the tome begins with an exhaustive ‘Introduction’ where the author argues that book reviewing is an act of subjective judgement. Chong puts book reviewers on a pedestal calling them “cultural consecrates” who demarcate which books deserve to be read and which ones should be left out.
However, this process of consecration entails sociological uncertainties which are at play when the activity of book reviewing takes place. And she goes on to demonstrate how uncertainties faced by reviewers may impact their evaluative judgement of fiction. For instance, epistemic uncertainty suggests that “aesthetic judgement is a matter of idiosyncratic taste” and that has a shaping influence on the editors’ selection of books to a reviewer’s act of writing.
In this interview-based study, Chong takes the responses from fiction reviewers who had published a review in at least “one of the three influential American review outlets”. And of course, it seems a lopsided sampling that she honestly accepts as an “elite bias”. But she claims that her respondents have worked with multiple big publications in various countries including Canada and the U.K. that widens the scope of her study. Interviews of reviewers and editors elicit some interesting stories.
Not just a report
The book casts a refreshing look at the driving mechanism of book reviewing, and invites the reader to understand hitherto unexplored complexities. Book reviewers, whom Chong interchangeably calls as “critics”, are among the chief components of this mechanism. They are the tastemaker who steer the reader towards a good book; they are also the business intermediaries who contribute to the saleability of books; they construct the meaning in a specific cultural context and provide an artistic legitimacy. And thus, book reviewing is more than just a reporting on books, and of course it carries some implications which the author brings into the spotlight as well. Chong as an academic is quite forthright about her objective — she uses a subtle yardstick to measure the flaws of the book reviewing practice. Thus, her book unfurls a succession of fraught questions discerning commercial compulsions, non-standard techniques of reviewing and subjective evaluative approach. Chong gives us a peek into the world of critics and the literary values they offer.
Inside the Critics’ Circle: Book Reviewing in Uncertain Times; Phillipa K. Chong, Princeton University Press, ₹1,964.
The reviewer is a writer and senior research scholar at the department of English, Aligarh Muslim University.