There’s a fairly new detective novel out titled The Cuckoo’s Calling. How do I know that? Because it was written by J. K. Rowling, a very rich and very famous writer. When it was believed to have been written by Robert Galbraith, a first time novelist, I hadn’t heard “boo” about it. After all, it wasn’t by a very rich and very famous writer, so nobody talked about it. The book sold terribly. However, once it was discovered to have been written by J. K. Rowling, it shot to the tops of bestseller lists, and now everybody’s talking about it. To me, the trajectory of The Cuckoo’s Calling spotlights, among other things, the dubious position occupied by most reviewers—commonly referred to as “critics,” though criticism generally serves a different function than reviews do—and makes clear why many people are averse to or, worse, completely indifferent to writers who reflect on popular culture and the arts, and why those writers can and should make more of a difference than they do.
I’ll admit, though I look at most reviews with a degree of skepticism, I still read them. They help me know what is going on in the arts and pop culture, as well as what people are saying about it. And if you keep looking, you can even find reviewers who get it right, who treat reviewing more as criticism, with something to offer beyond the usual, “I didn’t like it because I didn’t like the main character” or “It didn’t work because it wasn’t plausible.” I mean really, outside of informal conversations with friends perhaps, who cares?
Unfortunately, most reviewers are like Maureen Corrigan, a book reviewer I heard on NPR the other day reviewing The Cuckoo’s Calling. She began by giving an overview of the book’s brief publishing history, telling us how its initial sales were bad in spite of “some good reviews,” such as the one from that fount of critical acumen Publisher’s Weekly, which declared it “a stellar debut.” However, as Corrigan informs us, “an unknown author trying to break into an overcrowded genre needs more than approving clichés to make an impact.” Indeed. And it’s because it didn’t make an impact, one would presume, that Corrigan didn’t bother reading The Cuckoo’s Calling when she received a review copy of it, but instead, as she tells us, “probably … packed [it] off in one of the shopping bags full of unwanted review copies I donated to the library a few weeks ago.”
Once she found out that Rowling had written it, though, she immediately downloaded it and now she’s ready to share her assessment of it, and I quote: “I’ve read worse, but I’ve read better.” Dear lord. So let me get this straight: when she thought the book was by an unknown author who could have benefitted from any attention—good, bad, or in between—she ignored it. But once the book turned out to be “critic”-proof—which, having become the number one bestseller at Amazon.com before the likes of Corrigan ever got around to reading it, The Cuckoo’s Calling is—then Corrigan reviewed it even though she had nothing to say about it.
Let’s face it. At this point, nobody gives a rip what reviewers say about the book if all they’re going tell us is whether or not they liked it. People who read books but don’t really care about them buy the books that they do because those books are familiar in some way. They’ve heard of them. The books are either part of a series, written by an author they’ve heard of and maybe even liked, are about a trendy topic, or have had significant media coverage. In other words, they’re often reading a book because it was successfully marketed, not because of what reviewers say about it, unless reviews were an integral part of a book’s marketing strategy.
So if Rowling’s book is essentially “critic”-proof, why would reviewers bother writing about it? Well, they’re probably expected to by their editors, but that begs the question: why would editors want to publish reviews that are essentially meaningless? The answer, of course, is money. There is money to be made in the vicinity of big money. If The Cuckoo’s Calling is popular, then anything that has to do with The Cuckoo’s Calling could be popular too. While there’s nothing criminal about that, I suppose, my guess is that if you read reviews, you’re not merely doing it so the newspaper, and everyone associated with it, can make money. I’m guessing you’re there for a little content, too. So shouldn’t reviewers be drawing your attention to those books or movies or plays or whatever that you haven’t heard of but that they feel you should know about? Those books by the Robert Galbraiths of the world, for example?
And why can’t more reviews be like works of criticism, shining some insight on an issue raised by a book? At his best, Roger Ebert would do this in his print reviews of films. It’s what set him apart from most other movie reviewers. I mean if Corrigan insisted on reviewing The Cuckoo’s Calling, she could have at least come up with something more inspired than a long-winded “meh.” Perhaps she could have discussed the pitfalls of writing detective fiction, engaged in an analysis of Rowling’s style, or even used the story of the shifting fortunes of The Cuckoo’s Calling to discuss how difficult it is in today’s publishing industry to be an unknown writer, using the novel’s mediocrity as the crux of her argument. Of course, had she discussed how the careers of unknown writers are harmed by the contemporary publishing industry, including the media surrounding it, she would have indicted herself. Based on what she had to say about The Cuckoo’s Calling, she’s clearly part of the problem.