Media critics tend to think about reviews in two ways: either as autonomous acts of creative intervention or as necessary fodder for publicity campaigns. Rather than elevate either of these options, I offer an account of my own reviewing experience as anecdotal evidence of the interrelation between creative intervention and commodification at work in every printed newspaper review. As Frederick Jameson argued long ago in his essay “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture”, capitalist culture always contains elements of utopian or counter-hegemonic fantasy, but these elements are quickly absorbed and squelched within the market. Indeed, the appearance of literary criticism itself is bound up with the transformation of cultural activity into commodity form. In order to appreciate how reviews function within the economy of literary journalism, one should underestimate neither the ease with which even the most insightful review has always already been absorbed into the process of commodification nor how this process can work against the market’s own best interests. (For a study of the economic impact of reviewing, see Cameron. For the complications involved in writing a history of reviews and reviewers, see Fosdick.)
For the last few years, I have written book reviews primarily for my local newspaper, the Iowa City Press-Citizen. As a 15,000-run newspaper, the Press-Citizen is listed in the small newspaper category for journalism awards and is one of the smallest newspapers owned by the giant media conglomerate, Gannett. Because Iowa City is home to the Big Ten, 30,000-student University of Iowa, the Press-Citizen has a more highly educated audience than that of other newspapers with similar press runs. Yet the educated readership also means that the local population expects a journalistic product with the sophistication of the New Yorker while the marketplace is only slightly larger than that of the little old ladies in Dubuque.
Because of budget limitations, the Press-Citizen’s cultural reporting occupies a small percentage of its local news pages. As a result, the editorial staff deems newsworthy only those reviews demonstrating a clear local angle. From one perspective, this decision represents a commitment to the community. In practical terms, however, the policy means that the newspaper solicits reviews only for the authors who participate in “Live from Prairie Lights”, a reading series jointly sponsored by the university’s not-for-profit, public radio station, WSUI, and one of the city’s independently owned bookstores, Prairie Lights. The reading series owes its reputation, in part, to the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, consistently hailed by U.S. News and World Report as the number one MFA creative writing program in the nation. Because the Workshop attracts established alumni (such as Michael Cunningham and John Irving) as well as ambitious younger writers, Prairie Lights has become a popular stop for authors touring in the geographical pentagram between Chicago, Minneapolis, Omaha, Kansas City, and St. Louis.
Before I even type a word, therefore, any review I send to the Press-Citizen already has been commodified by the editorial staff’s decision to base its definition of newsworthiness on the publicity needs of a network of local businesses. Furthermore, if I decide not to write a review – or if the editorial staff decides it cannot afford to pay any correspondent for the review – the newspaper simply saves money and hassle by reprinting wire reviews published in any of the other 100 Gannett newspapers in the U.S. In order to add to the variety – to increase heterogeneity in the public sphere – I must first submit to a very restricted notion of what that sphere is.
While Gannett’s business model involves absorbing and centralising local media outlets, Prairie Lights’s business model tends to undermine such a corporate mindset through its role as the area’s largest independent bookstore. Sponsoring “Live from Prairie Lights” is one way that the store, with help from the radio station, fights for its survival against superstore chains and discounted on-line giants. My review’s extra publicity for Prairie Lights, then, helps a brick-and-mortar independent bookstore maintain its independence. To the bookstore staff, the fact that my review appears in the local paper matters more than whether I denounce or celebrate a visiting writer. So, again, before I type a single word, my reviews simultaneously participate within a compromised commercial system and undermine the corporate policies of my newspaper’s parent company by helping support the independent mindset of a key local business.
Just as my printed review is always already framed by the local editorial policies of a media conglomerate and the promotional needs of a large independent bookstore, it is also automatically placed in conversation with the paratextual press releases, plot synopses, and blurbs provided by the publishing houses. Even if I approach the work from a completely different angle than the publicists suggest, readers will readily align my perspective against the myriad of uncritical, press-release-based reviews to be found on Google News, Lexis-Nexis, or Metacritic.com. And even if local readers manage to avoid those reviews, they will still be exposed to the official publicity information if they listen to WSUI’s “Live from Prairie Lights”. Despite the commitment of Iowa Public Radio to an independent assessment of news and culture, the introductions provided by the program’s host nearly always regurgitate the publicity information as the homogenizing conceptual frame into which all aberrant discussions of the work become mere exceptions that prove the rule.
The interrelation between creativity and commodification becomes apparent even in best-case scenarios. In September 2002, for example, the University of Iowa Press published a book of recently rediscovered Farm Service Agency photographs from the 1930s that proved complementary to the more familiar photographs of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. An Iowa writer worked with the photographer’s surviving family members and wrote a well-documented, insightful, historical narrative to contextualise the photos. Anticipating local interest in the collection, Prairie Lights ordered hundreds of copies and moved the radio broadcast from the bookstore to a larger auditorium. Because of the Iowa connections at every phase of the project, it was easy to convince the Press-Citizen to run a lengthy review accompanied by several photos.
After sifting through the photographs, digesting the narrative, and skeptically perusing the university press’s promotional material, I challenged myself to do something more than regurgitate the information provided me. Giving a cultural studies twist to Anatole France’s romantic dictum of the good critic relating the adventures of his soul among masterpieces, I decided to provide my own analysis of the photographs as cultural objects and only then turn to the narrative as a contrasting explanation of the uncanny vibrancy of these images of the last century. While I was sometimes critical of her evaluation, the author was impressed enough with my efforts that she called my editor to inform him personally that my review was the best she had read and that I was the only reviewer who had actually looked beyond the press release.
Having never before been so complimented by an author, I decided to attend the reading and meet her face-to-face. Not surprisingly, the experience proved disillusioning. The writer proved as insightful in the program’s question and answer session as she had been in her prose, and the photos were as intriguing on the video screen as they were in the book. Yet the mobile radio production equipment and the portable cashier station – even more so, its constant beeping – made clear just how my investment of time and intellect served crossed purposes. While I was helping my readership make sense of these rediscovered photos from the past, I was also helping the University of Iowa Press and Prairie Lights sell books even as I was helping the Press-Citizen sell ads for the press and bookstore. The photo collections brought enough pleasure that many of the audience members were buying several copies to give as gifts, but that pleasure was both preconditioned for and a by-product of the cycle of production and publicity.
At the moment when my review proved insightful enough to warrant a commendatory phone call from the author, it was most at risk of becoming a mere cog in the process of commodification. Rather than declare with any finality that reviews are either inspired or ingratiating, media critics need to continue to account for such interconnections between the creative and commercial factors of publication.