Everybody is recommending books these days, but it’s unclear how much people are actually reading them.
It’s now stylish for celebrities like Reese Witherspoon, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Emma Roberts to create their own book clubs in the shadow of Oprah, whose recommendations still command influence. Influencers delicately photograph beautiful books to frame in their Instagram feeds, and the color-coded bookshelf is a status symbol. A lot of contemporary, mainstream book coverage tends to boil down to fluffy Buzzfeed-style lists of delicious summer reads, with a few sentences of a regurgitated plot summary thrown in at each bullet point.
But we’re in a golden age of book criticism that holds not only bad books accountable, but the personalities of over-hyped writers and the fawning villages of commenters and fans that spring up around them. Where once Jill Solloway’s memoir might have been released to mushy fanfare, critics like Andrea Long Chu offer a necessary corrective. “As a book about desire, power, or toppling the patriarchy, it is incompetent, defensive, and astonishingly clueless,” she opens her review, before telling you it’s not even worth buying at an airport. “This is a dull, needy book,” Parul Sehgal wrote frankly in her review of Kristen Roupenian’s debut story collection, author of the viral “Cat Person” New Yorker story.
The press cycle for Lauren Duca’s book included takedown after takedown, revealing that the one-time Teen Vogue columnist’s flash-in-the-pan appearance on the Tucker Carlson show and an avid Twitter following were all she had going for her as a writer and self-proclaimed revolutionary. “There are many public figures who say writing is their profession yet whose ideas are more notable for their quantity than their quality,” Haley Mlotek wrote for The Nation. “That’s a long way of saying they have a lot of Twitter followers.” “Rooney’s books are riskless and conciliatory,” wrote Becca Rothfield for The Point Mag of the wildly popular Sally Rooney.
But the book press overall has also gotten increasingly dramatic, between reports of YA novels canceled over reader complaints to the chaotic meltdown of the Romance Writers of America organization. Book subjects call out authors for egregious fact-checking errors, and authors call out critics for the same. Jeanine Cummins, the white author of the Oprah book club pick American Dirt, has canceled multiple book dates after immense criticism over the book’s lazy, stereotypical depiction of a mother and son fleeing Mexico for America. “It’s clear that we need to have a different kind of conversation about American Dirt and we welcome everyone’s thoughts and opinions in our community,” Oprah wrote responding to the controversy.
Warm and fuzzy book coverage seems like it’s finally out, and deliciously written hatchet jobs are in.