The office of a reviewer is, in a republic of letters, as beneficial and necessary, though as odious and unpleasant, as that of an executioner in a civil state.
This is fun, of course, as long as we don't have to think too seriously about the death penalty or about book reviewing. There is, I'll admit, something unpleasant enough about the business — all of us who have received bad notices know it, and we at the Los Angeles Review of Books are aware of it every day, now that we're editing a bunch of reviews, worrying about our multiple responsibilities to writers, critics, readers, the record. But one thing I'll wager: being reviewed does beat being executed.
Comparisons are odorous, as Dogberry says, but comparisons, however implicitly made, are the sturdy vein of book talk. I went to graduate school when it was considered elitist and therefore immoral to argue that some books were better than others, when the capital L in Literature was under a fairly strenuous ban, so I know how to avoid evaluation; in those years we all learned how to get by without it. Under the sway of the Death of the Author and what we might call the Deconstructive Fallacy — the idea that since a text can implode under enough analytic weight, it is "always already" imploded — we came to a conclusion not unlike Gumport's: reviews are "pointless and boring — as unread as they are unreadable."
"Against Reviews" is the title given Gumport's piece, and, like my graduate school friends (although for different reasons), she proposes that we do away with the whole schmear. First, though, she offers a quick, entertaining, and informative history of book reviewing, from the 12th century through Virginia Woolf and on to Elizabeth Hardwick bemoaning the decline of book reviewing in Harper's in 1959 (" ... lobotomized, accommodation reigns ... "), all with a pleasant and urbane combination of the snide and the deeply informed. At one level, I was enlightened and entertained; at another, of course, I remained unconvinced: I am, after all, reviewing her review of reviewing.
But I agree with what I take to be Gumport's central and most valuable contention. The thumbs-up-, thumbs-down, two-star, four-star, 500-word book review, proffered more as an adjunct to a publisher's publicity department than as a service to readers, slave to some preordained list of "importa...