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Christian Lorentzen on Book Reviews

Writing for Harper’s, Christian Lorentzen surveys the future of book reviews in an age of algorithmic recommendations and “like this or die” literary culture:

About fifteen years ago, as happens from time to time, there was a movement in the literary world against “snark” and toward a new niceness. Dave Eggers, author and publisher of ­McSweeney’s, spoke of wanting to send a message to younger people that “books are good, that reading is good… and that anyone pissing in the very small and fragile ecosystem that is the literary world is mucking it up for everyone.” I don’t think that negative reviews, even snarky ones, are toxic in the way that Eggers characterized them, nor do I think the new books coverage is toxic. If we run with Eggers’s ecosystem metaphor, the new books coverage is more like litter. Endless lists of recommendations blight the landscape with superlatives that are hard to believe, especially, as is inevitable, when they aren’t drawn from the work of critics but compiled by poorly paid writers who haven’t read the books they’re recommending, a standard practice in preview lists. Proliferating recommendations become what Hardwick called “a hidden dissuader, gently, blandly, respectfully denying whatever vivacious interest there might be in books or in literary matters generally.” Readers are better served by the algorithm, which never pretends to have an actual opinion.