May 9, 2022 • 54M

Podcast: The Book Reviewing Crisis

Emily M. Keeler on why criticism is essential and endangered

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Jeet Heer
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Readers at Rizzoli bookstore, New York, New York, December 1964 (Photo by Susuan Wood/Getty Images)

In the summer of 1999 I reviewed Russell Smith’s debut short shorty collection Young Men. To make sure I did the job right, I read his earlier works, two novels. I also read some of Smith’s journalism and interviews with the writer. In those interviews he often cited Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis. So I read some books by both writers. Altogether I read about a dozen books and wrote a 3,000 word essay about the story collection and where it stood in relation to Smith’s emerging body of work, as well as his place in the tradition of the comic social novel. 

My editor, John Metcalf of Canadian Notes and Queries, liked the piece so much he insisted on doubling our agreed upon fee. Instead of $25, I was getting $50. It was perhaps the least remunerative work I’ve ever done (aside from some book reviewing for publications that ended up paying me nothing). But it was oddly satisfying. I felt I was doing something that needed doing, where I learned a lot and could share my new understanding with readers.

Book reviewing has never been the road to riches. Economically, it’s usually a marginal activity on the fringe of culture. But it’s also an activity that is essential for the health of reading culture. 

In the current issue of Maisonneuve, Emily M. Keeler surveyed the state of book reviewing in Canada, riffing off an essay in n+1 that offered a bleak view of the USA scene. The Canadian situation is even worse than the one in the United States. Emily is well-versed on these topics. She’s a former book review editor at the National Post, has written about books for a variety of publications, and is at work on her first novel. She’s also the editor of this newsletter.

In talking about book reviews, we also take up some recent books about social media, including Lauren Oyler's Fake Accounts, Patricia Lockwood's No One is Talking About This  and Vivek Shraya's The Subtweet.

(Post edited by Emily M. Keeler)


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