Reviews that Say Nothing

A while ago, there was an uproar of discussion regarding the nature of book reviews and whether the critic should be, in the most simplistic way of speaking, “nice” or not. Quite a bit of the conversation centered on William Giraldi’s self-congratulatory, excessively assholish, show offy, “Let’s see how many references and allusions I can cram in because I’m so smart” critique of Alix Ohlin’s work.

As a rule, I don’t think book reviews have an obligation to bend over backwards to be complimentary, nor do I think critics should be hard-hearted, impossible-to-please ogres either.

But lost in this discussion of nice-versus-mean was another problem that plagues many book reviews: Critics who don’t criticize positively or negatively.

Check out this entirely non-commital Janet Maslin review of Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.

I’ve read this review three times now and I’m still not sure if Maslin likes the book or not. There are a handful of seemingly positive comments tossed in:

–A series of fantasy novels “are parodied here with great affection…”
–The author’s characters are “wittily-drawn…”
–The author “niftily embellishes his book…” with another character.

But that’s about it. There are no outright declarations of success or failure. Take for example the following passage: “Mr. Sloan is intent on connecting these Tokeinesque types to the bookstore’s real-world existence. That’s a big burden to place on such a mild-mannered, easygoing novel.” But instead of following up with letting us know about Sloan’s skill at shouldering that burden or his weakness under the weight, Maslin goes back to plot summary.

Ultimately, reviews like this are little more than book reports. And while I don’t believe readers need to be spoon-fed with explicit star systems or thumbs up/thumbs down methods of conveying quality at a glance, it is frustrating to read a review and not know whether the book is any good or not.