While we were out to lunch the other day, a friend asked me what qualifications a person has to have to be a book reviewer. I started to answer her, and then shut my mouth and thought. I started to answer again, and then stopped and thought some more. Finally, and with great regret, I said, “Not many.”
The job of reviewing books, plays, concerts, art exhibits, dance — all those things that fall under the heading of “arts and entertainment” in the local paper — have traditionally gone to employees who had more interest in that area of reportage than, say, store openings and the police beat. Some of them actually had some experience in a given art. They may have done some acting or dancing or played in an orchestra. They may have studied literature in college and once had a dream of writing as a career, but then gave it up. A very few, like Pauline Kael, had such love and respect for the field they reviewed that they inspired masses to love and respect it too. There are still a few book reviewers like that —Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times, for example, or Jay Strafford of the Richmond Times, Oline Cogdill of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Marilyn Stasio of the New York Times Book Review — but their number is shrinking.
As newspapers lose readers to electronic sites, art coverage is seen as a luxury they can ill afford. So the staffer who once did a pretty good job of covering book reviews is likely to be replaced by the restaurant critic or a free-lance “contributor” who thinks a book or theater review means summarizing the plot, thus cheating the reader or play-goer of the pleasure of surprise.
Online reviewers fall into the same camps. Some of them write intelligent, insightful reviews, some write dreck. The beauty of the internet, however, is that readers have far more options than they do with newspapers. If they find an online reviewer irrelevant, they just won’t go back. Ultimately, that may create an entirely new group of excellent reviewers who survive and thrive because of their talent and perspicacity.
But back to my friend’s question about what qualifications a reviewer has to have: I don’t know.