Recent news: my New Guinea travel memoir, Long Way True will be published next spring by the University of Missouri Press.
Please visit my Authors Guild blog TraveLit, which reviews travel classics. These books--mostly little-known, and all worth knowing--cover travel in all its forms, from exploration to tourism. Along with reviews, TraveLit also brings together provocative and entertaining travel quotations, book recommendations from other readers, and links to points of interest.
My latest reviews look at Writing Blue Highways:The Story of How a Book Happened, by William Least Heat-Moon, which explores the author's 4-year struggle to transform his 13,000-mile journey into an extremely successful book, and News From Tartary, by Peter Fleming, an extraordinary traveler and a wonderful writer. My next review will focus on Here is New York, a concise and uncannily prescient essay by E. B. White.
I was born in New York City, attended Little Red School House and Hunter College High School, and concentrated in Classics at Harvard. After marrying in college, my husband and I lived in London, New Guinea, and San Francisco before settling in the Boston area with our son. These days we live in Cambridge and spend the colder part of the year in Sanibel, where I've become immersed in the natural world: plants, birds, alligators, and, to my surprise, shells.
For more than thirty years, I've been involved primarily in literary journalism, with a focus on criticism, the culture of magazines, and travel. I was editor of Boston Review and books editor of the Radcliffe Quarterly. My reviews and essays appeared in many newspapers and magazines, including Columbia Journalism Review, Women's Review of Books and the New York Times. My book columns--each focused on a specific field--appeared in the Christian Science Monitor (travel), Wilson Library Bulletin (mysteries), and the Cleveland Plain Dealer, San Diego Union-Tribune and Houston Post (fiction).
Since 2000 I have published two books and I have just completed a third, which will be published next spring. My first, Other People's Mail: An Anthology of Letter Stories, emerged from my fascination with this seductive mode of storytelling. My second, Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America, was drawn from long experience in the unruly world of criticism. Both were published by the University of Missouri Press.
In my new memoir, Long Way True--also from the University of Missouri Press--I have returned to the world of travel I wrote about in reviews for the Christian Science Monitor and in travel essays for the New York Times. In fact, Long Way True was inspired partly by a Times essay that I wrote about a fiasco of a field trip I took to New Guinea with my husband. My memoir looks back with wry humor on our sixteen months living in the bush with a people whose very different culture seemed to undermine our own, and our redemptive return to these people nearly forty years later. For all its humor, this is a book about culture shock that deals with the profound differences between cultures: the assumptions that we bring, the fears that we have, and the judgments that we make.
For more information about Faint Praise--and book reviewing in general--please take a look at my other web site.
And for more information about my earlier book, Other People's Mail: An Anthology of Letter Stories, please visit www.home.comcast.net/~gailpool
Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America
University of Missouri Press
More than 150,000 books are published annually in the United States.
Which books are reviewed? Why?
Who reviews them?
Why do so many books receive such excessive praise?
A book that explains reviewing: how it works, why it so often fails.
---Faint Praise should be considered mandatory reading for anyone aspiring to become a book reviewer, and is especially valuable reading for authors, publishers, academicians, and the general reading public.--Midwest Book Review, September 3, 2007
---In the future, freshly appointed book editors at our daily newspapers should be handed a copy of Gail Pool's Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America. They could use it: It is a very commonsensical, clear-headed and knowledgeable analysis of the current state of professional book reviewing.--Jerome Weeks, artsjournal, National Book Critics Circle, Critical Mass, August 2007
---Pool's book is timely. It is also well-conceived and well-researched. In fact, it is difficult to imagine a more thoughtful, informative book about the work I've done for nearly 40 years.--Steve Weinberg, Boston Globe, October 27, 2007
---Everyone in the field will applaud Pool's passionate insistence on the importance to literary culture of the serious, informed critique, which is increasingly endangered and in need of such vigorous support.--Publishers Weekly, June 4, 2007
---Faint Praise is a thorough look at the current state of book reviewing in America...The examples are entertaining--and revealing. Our assessment: A-: Solid overview and discussion--The Complete Review, July 2007
---I will be referring back to this earnest and informed book from time to time, and I recommend it as an introduction to mainstream book reviewing in America.--Tom Christensen, Right Reading, June 2007
---Pool's book is a clarion call for a return to a vigorous kind of criticism, based on sound, logical thinking and the precise use of language.--Steven W. Beattie, That Shakespearean Rag, July 2007
---Some well-deserved pats on the back and slaps upside the head.--Kirkus, June 2007
---If you're a book reviewer (aspiring or established), or simply want to understand book reviewing better, there's no doubt: You must read Gail Pool's Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America. Period.--Erika Dreifus, Practicing Writing, September 18, 2007
---Faint Praise puts book reviews in context better than anything else I've read.--Susan Thomsen, Chicken Spaghetti (blog)
---[Readers]...will quite likely never read reviews the same way in the future as they have in the past.--Steve Weinberg, Hartford Courant, July 22, 2007
---I think everyone who blogs would be well-served by reading this one book.--My Individual Take (On the Subject)(blog)
---...an impressively sane examination of the befuddled state of book criticism. Among the volume's virtues is a clear and balanced description of what reviewing, at its best, can and should be.--Bill Marx, The Arts Fuse, July 27, 2007
---Book reviewing faces its own "silent spring," Gail Pool warns in her new book, flashing a distress signal over the endemic rot and habitat destruction laying waste to the field of letters, and doing her darnedest to make people care. --James Wolcott, The New Republic, December 4, 2007
---If you care about the fate of book reviews...Faint Praise...is a book you should care about.--Michael Merschel, book review editor, Dallas Morning News, August 2007
---Highly recommended.--C. M. Mayo, Madam Mayo (Writing Blog), January 2009
---Veteran reviewer Gail Pool comes at the problem of the declining and frequently abysmal quality of book reviews in America, across the publishing spectrum, from a down-to-earth, nitty-gritty, practical perspective...to yield a most usable and rewarding guide to the book review business.--Anis Shivani, American Book Review, November/December 2008
---...A thoughtful and thought-provoking guide to the artistry and scholarship, not to mention the agony and ecstasy that is part of good book reviewing...Pool's crisp, intelligent, and witty style moves the reader from the lonely and unrewarding depths to the lofty heights of book reviewing.--Lawrence Rubin, Journal of Popular Culture, August 2008
---Excellent.--Laura Hazard Owen, Publishing Trends, October 2009
---Pool's analysis is as wide-ranging as it is hard-hitting. Faint Praise is a brave polemic, written out of a profound love of literature, evident on every page. --Megan Marshall, Radcliffe Quarterly, Winter 2008
---Everything you need to know about book reviewing can be found in Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America by Gail Pool.--Tony Miksanek, Letters, "The Book Room," Chicago Sun-Times.
When Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America was published in 2007, the main news in the field was the rapidly declining number of reviews in newspapers and magazines. At this point, their number seems to have stabilized, and I hope that the discussion can shift from their quantity to their quality, which is the central issue of my book.
The response to Faint Praise when it appeared was favorable at such publications as Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Midwest Review, American Book Review, the Boston Globe, the Hartford Courant, Rain Taxi, the Radcliffe Quarterly, Technical Communication, the Journal of Popular Culture and NRC Handelsblad, a major newspaper in the Netherlands. (In fact, the book seems to have triggered a serious discussion of reviewing in the Netherlands.) James Wolcott wrote about Faint Praise at length in The New Republic.
Both the book and the subject of reviewing have received a great deal of attention online. Thoughtful, positive reviews have appeared at the Complete Review, the artsjournal blog BookDaddy, That Shakespearean Rag, RightReading, My Individual Take (On the Subject), the Arts Fuse, Practicing Writing, My Sweet Home Alameda, and Texas Pages, the blog for the Dallas Morning News. Scott McLemee praised the book on his blog, Inside Higher Ed., and Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle, reprinted the long artsjournal essay by Jerome Weeks. It was discussed on The Walt Bodine Show (NPR), and I've been interviewed by Colin Marshall at The Marketplace of Ideas, by Bill Marx at The Arts Fuse, by Ramona Koval on The Book Show, and by Mayra Calvani at blogcritics.org.
Below is a description of Faint Praise. For more information about the book and book reviewing in general, please visit my web site (www.reviewingbooks.com). It now includes a bibliography of book reviewing, which I hope readers will find useful; a compilation of quotations about book reviewing, which I hope readers will find entertaining; and a brief biographical note, which provides links to several of my earlier articles on book reviewing and--a digression--a travel piece I wrote for the New York Times about a trip to New Guinea. The web site is still (always) in-progress, and I welcome comments, suggestions, corrections, and queries.
The Plight of Book Reviewing in America
by Gail Pool
Many critics are like woodpeckers, who, instead of enjoying the fruit and shadow of a tree, hop incessantly around the trunk, pecking holes in the bark to discover some little worm or other.--Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
A critic is someone who enters the battlefield after the war is over and shoots the wounded.--Murray Kempton
The earliest book reviews in America appeared at the end of the 18th century. They have been influencing--and frustrating--people ever since. For two centuries, reviews have set our literary agenda, helping to determine not only what we read but what we think about what we read. And for two centuries, critics-of-the-critics, often reviewers themselves, have complained that reviews are profligate in their praise, hostile in their criticism, cravenly noncommittal, biased, inaccurate, or dull. By now, so many essays have been written lamenting the sorry state of American reviewing that they comprise a minor genre. Yet no book has explored in depth the reasons for this perennial failure or the question of how reviewing might improve.
These are the issues I address in Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America, which critiques American reviewing, analyzing the workings of this troubled but important field. More than 150,000 books are published annually in the United States, and the number seems to be rising. More than ever, readers need guidance to inform them about what significant books have been published and help them decide which ones they want to read. As a longtime book reviewer, review editor, and columnist, I'm hardly a dispassionate observer, but I believe this guidance is best provided by the broad, knowledgeable, disinterested commentary that only good reviewing can offer. If our critical enterprise works so badly that it often fails to work at all, we need to understand why.
In eight chapters Faint Praise examines all aspects of the unruly world of reviewing. It discusses how editors choose a handful of books for review from the vast number that are published and how they assign them to suitable--or unsuitable--reviewers. It analyzes the roles played by editors, publishers, authors and readers, and appraises the lot of the reviewer, with his measure of prestige, his dose of scorn, and his lowly pay. It explores the context of reviewing, the traditions that have evolved in a culture with little interest in literature, much antipathy to criticism, and a weakness for praise. It contrasts reviewing with alternative book coverage, from Amazon to Oprah. And finally it suggests how our traditional methods of reviewing could be revised. Throughout, the book weighs the inherent difficulties of reviewing that make certain shortcomings inevitable against the unacceptable practices that undermine the very reasons we read--and need--reviews.
I have written Faint Praise for a general audience of readers. It will clearly interest--and provoke--people in the book field, and it can be especially useful for authors trying to navigate the world of reviews. But its subject and critical viewpoint should have wider appeal as well. For all readers, reviews remain influential: in serious fiction and nonfiction, the books that are reviewed are the ones we know about. Book clubs use reviews in making their choices. Book award committees use them in making their choices as well. And yet for most readers, the book page remains something of a mystery. Faint Praise demystifies reviewing, offering insight into this branch of the media, with its power to award prestige to authors, give prominence to topics, help shape opinion and determine taste.
In writing Faint Praise, I have drawn upon two decades in literary journalism. A Harvard graduate in Classics with an MA in Creative Writing and an MLS, I was editor of Boston Review for four years and books editor of The Radcliffe Quarterly for more than ten years. I have been a book columnist for The Christian Science Monitor; for Wilson Library Bulletin, where I created and edited a book review section; and for The Cleveland Plain Dealer, where I wrote a column on first fiction that also appeared in The Houston Post, The San Diego Union-Tribune, and The St. Petersburg Times. My articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Women's Review of Books, The Chronicle of Higher Education (which published my back-page essay on reviewing), and many other publications. I am a member of the National Book Critics Circle, the National Writers Union, and the Authors Guild, and I have spoken about reviewing on various panels.
My web site--http://www.reviewingbooks.com--includes a bibliography of book reviewing, quotations about book reviewing, and a brief biographical note with links to a few of my earlier articles on book reviewing.
I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where for many years I taught Writing for Publication at the Radcliffe Seminars. I am also editor of Other People's Mail: An Anthology of Letter Stories, which was published in 2000 by the University of Missouri Press.
Work Previously Published:
Other People's Mail
An Anthology of Letter Stories
This anthology, the first of its kind, offers seventeen modern letter stories, written by an internationally diverse group of authors that includes Alice Munro, Julio Cortazar, Nadine Gordimer, Torgny Lindgren and Tadeusz Borowski. These are unusual, original, and truly wonderful tales. They are variously comic, satirical, poignant, or tragic. They are letters written from the Canadian wilderness, from a private school in Geneva, from a concentration camp, from beyond the grave. What they share is the epistolary form: each story creates a distinctly different variation on this intriguing theme.
For more information about Other People's Mail, please visit my web site (recently updated):
"Captivating stories in an anthology of epistolary fiction from the last 50 years...Pool proves the letter story to be a truly modern, and perhaps even postmodern, form of prose.--Kirkus
"The pieces live up to the intriguing promise of the title, drawing the reader into the intimate circle that is the epistolary tale."--Publishers Weekly
"Every one of [these stories] is wickedly absorbing."--Katherine A. Powers, Boston Globe
"Other People's Mail...shows the way a plot may emerge in salutations and asides, revisions and postscripts."--Carolyn Alessio, Chicago Tribune, Editor's Choice
"This collection is unique...Editor Pool has selected a remarkably diverse collection of stories...Some stories are comic, some serious, and some tragic. The result is an entertaining and moving collection."--Danise Hoover, Booklist
"Other People's Mail not only brings together great writing talents...it gives us a way to examine more closely the tools and techniques of a specific form."--Christopher Tinney, Rain Taxi
"The best of the stories are gems and make Other People's Mail an extraordinarily valuable book to have on the shelf. Other People's Mail is an anthology that needs to exist."--Eric Miles Williamson, American Book Review