The Observer had an interview with Robert Silvers, the veteran editor of the New York Review of Books (he was present at the 1963 dinner party where it was conceived, and has been its editor ever since).
The copy surrounding the actual interview makes great play of the foundation of the NYRB – that it was set up to be a serious-minded counterweight to the “light” nature of book reviews elsewhere. It quotes approvingly from a 1959 article written by Elizabeth Hardwick called ‘The Decline of Book Reviewing’, which the founders of the NYRB took as the starting point for their new magazine. The Observer‘s interviewer draws particular attention to the earlier article’s criticisms of mainstream book reviews:
‘Sweet, bland commendations fall everywhere upon the scene,’ she [Hardwick] wrote of America’s newspaper and magazine book pages […]. ‘A universal, if somewhat lobotomised, accommodation reigns. A book is born into a puddle of treacle; the brine of hostile criticism is only a memory.’ Crikey. She would have been horrified by today’s book pages, wouldn’t she? Silvers smiles. “Yes, she would,” he says.
The Observer article is reproduced, as always these days, on The Guardian website. It appears in the ‘Books’ section, which means that alongside it, in the sidebar, appears a block of links to the ‘Latest reviews’ on the website. The particular entries will vary with time, of course, but this was what I was presented with when I clicked on the article:
Elizabeth McCracken’s unforgettable stories … Lawrence Osborne’s compelling tale … John Lewis-Stempel’s fascinating field study … Neel Mukherjee’s engrossing second novel … Tristram Hunt’s lively study …
What was that quote again? Something about newspaper book reviews being all treacle and bland commendation, wasn’t it, with no brine?