OPEN UNIVERSITY FEBRUARY 16, 2007
by Steven Pinker
I second the concerns of Linda Hirshman and Eric Rauchway. The
justification for a new book review forum is not just to create something that's fun to read but a vehicle with a responsibility to the country's intellectual culture. In that regard it should take steps to avoid some of the shortcomings of NYRB. NYRB has published some outstanding pieces, but its
effects on intellectual life are questionable. It locked in an ideology from the early 1970s and gave a pulpit to a clique of alpha males from which they could impose their idiosyncratic theories and beat back new ideas they didn't like. This was especially problematic for the cognitive and biological sciences, in which NYRB's readership has been served the same cranky opinions decade after decade. This danger speaks against a single editor-for-life, and against a council of elders each with the franchise to review all new books in a field.
Another pathology of many book review forums is their lack of safeguards on fairness. In all walks of life, people are liable abuse their perquisites in the absence of feedback mechanisms. That's why we have grades in school, peer review in science, democracy in government, and so on. Book reviewing has survived as an exception to this rule: reviewers can pass off glib dismissals without fear of consequences. NYRB, for example, might grudgingly give an aggrieved author a few words of self-defense, and then allow the reviewer unlimited space for renewed trash talk. Some my colleagues in science are shocked at the ratio of bluster to content on the NYRB letters
page, and at the sheer rudeness of the discourse. Internet-friendly feedback mechanisms, like blogs, frays, and votes, offer numerous ways to reinvent the book review and encourage greater checks and balances on the reviewing process.
A new book review forum should also give thought to its treatment of literary fiction, the genre most endangered by the downsizing and dumbing down of book review sections. These baleful trends have been accompanied by yet another assault on the genre: flamboyantly malicious reviews as blood sport. Most of the commentary on this trend has focused on the entertainment
value of the snark, with little regard to the barriers to entry it creates for creative writers with no stomach for public humiliation or urination tournaments. There may be arenas, like science and law, in which the practitioners must develop a thick skin, and those who can't stand the heat should get out of the kitchen. But is this what we want of our poets and novelists?