Inside the Critics’ Circle: Book Reviewing in Uncertain Times (Princeton Studies in Cultural Sociology)

Image of Inside the Critics' Circle: Book Reviewing in Uncertain Times (Princeton Studies in Cultural Sociology)
Release Date: 
January 14, 2020
Princeton University Press
Reviewed by: 

“Although there are times when Chong gets a bit wordy and perhaps repetitive, her overall take on book reviewers and their work is well organized and informative. A must read for anyone interested in the challenge of book reviewing.”

There is something about a book reviewer reviewing a book about how to review books that is somewhat formidable. And yet that is exactly what is happening with Phillipa K. Chong’s recent book, Inside the Critics’ Circle.

Chong, an assistant professor of sociology at McMaster University has tackled a topic of interest to a small group of people: those who read books and review them for a living or just for the enjoyment of writing.

Inside the Critics’ Circle focuses primarily on reviewing fiction; it is well organized and is based on strong research, especially with concentration on interviews she has conducted with experienced reviewers.

Chong’s introduction is lengthy but prepares the reader for how she has laid out the information in the following chapters. She asks the question, “Why study critics at all?” To answer the question, she proceeds to discuss the “salient indicator of a critic’s impact or significance” on how a book is received. She refers to book reviews as “Producers of Literary Value.”

She goes on to discuss the various levels of quality uncertainty that apply to reviews: epistemological uncertainty, social uncertainty, and institutional uncertainty.

In the first chapter Chong presents her case for epistemic uncertainty, issues that are “concerned with actions and practices aimed at understanding, processing, and producing information . . .”

The first chapter is most informative as it goes into the details surrounding how book reviewing works. Here she identifies four criteria editors use for selecting books for review: newsworthiness, interesting content, variety of language, and practical constraints (need for reviewers).

Once the selection process is completed, the editor faces the task of matching the qualifying books with the appropriate reviewer. Here Chong points out that “there are no formally defined criteria to demarcate who is qualified to do the work of reviewing, including no prerequisite credentials.”

It should be noted here that Chong is primarily discussing paid staff reviewers and/or experienced and well-known non-staff reviewers. That said, it should also be noted that much of the information she imparts is valuable to the freelance reviewer as well.

Chapter three is particularly interesting in that Chong discusses the process that her interviewees shared about the steps they follow, from reading the book to determining its value—good, bad, or somewhere in between—to writing the actual review, and submitting it to the editor for acceptance.

This chapter further discusses what the reviewers consider evaluative criteria. That is: the strength or weakness of the characters; the plot, story, and structure; the language; the themes or ideas; and the genre expectations. One of the most interesting aspects of these considerations is language, which Chong refers to as “the technicalities of writing, including how writers construct their sentences, the rhythm of their writing, and their particular word choices. Here she also refers to the clunkiness of language: is it character driven or authorial and how that drives the review.

In her conclusion to this part, Chong assures the reader that “Aesthetic judgment is largely accepted as a matter of personal taste . . .” in other words, reviews are opinions, “thus the quality of a piece of fiction is difficult to determine in any final sense.”

In the second part of the book, Chong discusses social uncertainty, and how it “refers to critics’’’ inability to predict how relevant others will respond or react to their evaluation. For this specific reason, here Chong defines reviewing as a risky business

In this section Chong discusses the importance of “description, analysis, and entertainment as crucial parts to the anatomy of a review.” These are guides that will determine the success or failure of a book.

It is in this chapter where the discussion about writing a negative review begins. Here she refers to “playing nice” as a means of writing a good review. At this point in the book, Chong begins to talk about how reviewers view newer or intermediate writers and the type of encouraging review they will write, versus the well-known, extremely successful author who may be treated with a bit more candor, perhaps even to the point of derision.

At this point the discussion turns to what Chong refers to as “punching up, never down.” She defines these as “relational terms that position critics ‘above’ and ‘below’ implied others in the literary status hierarchy.” This “essentially implies that one can take shots at people who are higher in power than you, but not go after people with less power than you.”

In other words, a positive book review can contribute to developing superstars or a negative one can cut them down in the publishing arena.

As the book enters its final chapters, there is a discussion about defining reviewers and the various levels that they achieve. If one could find fault with the content of this book, it would be in Chapter Six “I Am Not a Critic” in which a good part of the discussion talks about amateurs and where one interviewee defines an amateur as “a hobbyist, someone who does not make a living from his or her field of interest, a lay person, lacking credential, a dabbler.”

Similar definitions appear further in this chapter, and it was interesting to read that several of the professional critics that Chong interviewed do not, themselves, make a living from reviewing, and yet they roundly criticize others of the same ilk. Further criticisms “invoke domestic imagery to draw the boundary between professional and amateur reviewers.” (That is, the freelance reviewer who works from home). This discussion seems to refer to the amateur and the professional, but very little in between. Perhaps not a complete comparison.

As Chong moves into the conclusion of her book, she points to the question “Can Anyone Be a Critic?” As this question relates to the discussion of professional vs. amateur reviews, Chong comments “how online spaces wherein people can share their thoughts on books can potentially bring a wider range of voices to bear on the question of what is valuable fiction.” Here she cites two examples of what she refers to as “crossover cases” where “bloggers and nonprofessional writers crossed over . . . to reviewing for mainstream media . . .“

These two examples: “the blogger who went mainstream” and “the hybrid reviewer” bring a final thought on this subject from Chong where she posits reasons for “internet and online magazines . . . as providing new opportunities for would-be reviewers to become known commodities and to come to the awareness of book review editors; however, to suggest that the internet is enabling a new flow of voices—especially in terms of the voices of average readers—is outside the empirical reality described by these crossover cases. Put differently, the critic’s circle remains relatively closed.”

To bring her book to a close, Chong refers to the issues raised in the book of not just criticism, and what it is in today’s world of publishing, but the sense of empowerment or peril that reviewers may feel in the total framework of their evaluations.

Although there are times when Chong gets a bit wordy and perhaps repetitive, her overall take on book reviewers and their work is well organized and informative. A must read for anyone interested in the challenge of book reviewing.