I was reminded of Orwell’s reviewer’s lament last week when Lev Grossman quoted it in his own discussion of book reviewing. Here is but a taste (the whole thing is well worth reading):
The best practice, it has always seemed to me, would be simply to ignore the great majority of books and to give very long reviews–1,000 words is a bare minimum–to the few that seem to matter. Short notes of a line or two on forthcoming books can be useful, but the usual middle-length review of about 600 words is bound to be worthless even if the reviewer genuinely wants to write it.
The more I read and think about reviewing, the more I come to agree with Orwell’s overall point. Better to do more reviewing of fewer books than to try find things to say about books that are bad, mediocre, or even just better than average.
Orwell was also wary of the flaccid language of evaluation that much book reviewing falls into:
For if one says–and nearly every reviewer says this kind of thing at least once a
week–that KING LEAR is a good play and THE FOUR JUST MEN is a good
thriller, what meaning is there in the word “good”?
This muddiness of judging is even more of a problem today; I would give paper money to read Orwell’s thoughts on five-star scales. I wonder if Orwell might even find the collapse of professional book-reviewing somewhat liberating. Without the financial incentive to write about uninspiring books, the only reason to write about books becomes passion, interest, and edification.