I began reviewing in the 1980s, and some years I wrote a fair number of reviews (mostly, as the list below shows, of books worth knowing about). I was a member of the National Society of Book Critics and the Bay Area Book Reviewers Association. As a publilsher I also issued several volumes of film reviews by the National Society of Film Critics. But at some point I became disillusioned with reviewing and reduced both my writing of reviews and my participation in reviewers' groups.
Reviewers have an important role to play in the literary marketplace but only a few do the job really well. Ideally, a review should contextualize, describe, and deconstruct the work. Judgment and evaluation only have meaning if the reviewer brings something substantive to the task. The best reviewers are able to articulate a coherent and consistent point of view over time, which enables the reader to rely on the review as a source of information and opinion. A small number of readers shared Pauline Kael's exact tastes, but a large number got to know her enthusiasms and enjoyed her takes on the films she wrote about.
Today there are not many reviewers who are producing work that is meaningful. Most operate as offshoots of the international entertainment corporations' publicity networks. As a publisher I knew that one reason to take care with catalogue, jacket, and press release copy was that it would quite often be parroted back in the form of book reviews, sometimes word for word. Lazy reviewers would lift ideas, phrases, and entire paragraphs, presenting them as their own thoughts and words.
Others subscribe to the solipsistic "shallow opinions" school of reviewing. To them, the very most important thing about any work is whether they liked it, and so they point, seemingly randomly, to some things that struck their fancy or turned them off. Frequently these judgments are uninformed and inconsistent. So now, as a reader of the reviews, I know that Mary in the Chronicle like the book but John in the Times didn't--and not a lot else.
Some reviewers, perhaps under pressure from their editors or aspiring to be promoted to film reviewer or TV critic, view the review as a form of entertainment. Then, to their basic "I sort of liked it" thesis, the reviewer adds a succession of snide witticisms and catty comments in order to jazz up the review. That might get you through to lunchtime, but a steady diet of it becomes monotonous, so once or twice a week fawning reviews tout the current literary star's latest work. (Besides, the reviewer wants to mingle with the gliterati at parties.)
Most positive reviews adhere quite closely to a familiar template. Seven or eight enthusiastic paragraphs hail the book's content and style, followed by a few crisp criticisms (to show that the reviewer is exercising critical capacities), to be succeeded in turn by a remark along the lines of "but these are minor flaws that do not detract from the author's real achievement," which leads finally into the big bombastic finish in which readers are exhorted to rush to the store to buy the same book that everyone else is reading. Someone should publish a magazine made up of publishers' press releases. Not many reviewers would be missed. Of course, in that case every book would be "compelling" and "luminous."
Right now most of the links are to reviews on the San Francisco Chronicle website, but
LaDuke, Betty, Compañeras: Women, Art, and Change in Latin America