The Los Angeles Review of Books has a policy, which the editor Evan Kindley divulged in a Twitter back-and-forth on Friday, of reviewing first books positively or not reviewing them at all. The rationale behind the policy, Kindley explained, is “That most authors’ careers fade away on their own, and that it’s easy and not that interesting to eviscerate first-timers.” He allowed that the LARB “might make exceptions for insanely hyped debuts” like Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, and would “certainly run a constructive critique of a first book.” But it’s only fair—“ethical” was his word—“to give writers a grace period.”
Of course, the LARB policy is little more than the advice Nick Carraway’s father gave to him, albeit in clumsier words: “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one . . . just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had all the advantage that you’ve had.” Or as my father taught me—a lesson that clearly did not take hold—“If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.” It represents the Elwood P. Dowd School of Life: “For years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.”
As career counseling, or advice for the lovelorn, this is good stuff. As a literary ethic, it might be called the law of youth soccer—there are no losers, only winners. Trophies for everyone! I was surprised, though, at how much support Kindley received for his position on Twitter—and at how many misconceptions about reviewing abound.
The mystery novelist Daniel Friedman, for example, conceives the reviewer’s role as telling book-buyers what to pick up and what to leave unopened (see here and here). The reviewer, in other words, is a literary Fodor’s, instructing the literary traveler where to spend the night and where to linger over dinner. His guidance is practical and timely and quickly outdated. (No one keeps a three-year-old Fodor’s lying around.) There is no intrinsic interest in what he says. His opinions are consumed—patronized, depleted—in the book-buyers’ following of them. At best the reviewer is a well-informed assistant to an adventure that less timid and uncertain readers might prefer to discover for themselves.
I don’t imagine that I speak for myself alone in saying that I have no desire whatever to fill any such role. Not that I think so highly of myself. If I am to be an assistant, however, I will be an assistant not to book-buyers, but to literature. I have always admired philosophers—have always preferred their passion for their subject to that of writers and critics, whose lukewarmness is legion—because philosophers are the sworn enemies of vagueness and confusion. Error is never afforded a grace period. It is corrected without regard to personal circumstances, which are too many in any case (marital status, health, age, psychological condition) to factor in with any degree of certainty. Philosophy is what philosophers protect, not the tender green shoots of younger philosophers’ careers.
The LARB’s very sensitivity to first-time writers’ careers gives weight to what I have been saying for some time—namely, literature (or, rather, creative writing) has become a bureaucracy, which shields its employees from markets and thus tends over time to put its own interests above the public’s. Why should I care whether a young writer settles comfortably into a literary career?—especially a writer whose mediocrity eats at the public reputation of literature. (Just look what the bureaucratic careerists have done to what is now called literary fiction so that readers know to avoid it.)
More troubling is the fundamental dishonesty involved. What, really, is the good being promoted? The book under review or the reviewing assignment completed and published? (Kindley was dismissive of the reviewer’s practical concerns, but it is no simple matter to place a review elsewhere when it was originally written for another publication. The critic is not quite so blithe to dismiss his investment of time and energy.) If the only values assigned to first books are going to be positive values, they will quickly become debased. Orwell understood the danger clearly:
Many thanks to Steve Abernathy for suggesting my title.
 Arnold Isenberg, “Critical Communication,” Philosophical Review 58 (July 1949): 330–44.