Joe Queenan (I read his book My Goodness: A Cynic's Short-Lived Search for Sainthood but remember just about nothing about it) had an essay in last weekend's New York Times Sunday Book Review called Enough With the Sweet Talk. It was an amusing piece about the abundance of "unjustifiably enthusiastic" book reviews. Queenan's angle involved the response of authors who have received such reviews, and he quotes a number of them on the subject. Dave Barry was once called the funniest man in America in a review. In an e-mail message to Queenan he said, "This is a ridiculous assertion; I am not the funniest man in my neighborhood."
As I said, the essay was clever and witty and all that. But, you know, Queenan is touching on something more serious. You do see an awful lot of positive reviews, so much so that I've sometimes wondered if reviewers at print journals get more work if they're careful to only say nice things. Sometimes you have to read between the lines to pick up on the fact that perhaps not everything is as glorious as it may seem. Is "Will call to mind Holden Caulfield" really praise or a warning that this book has been done before? Is "filled with southern eccentrics" code for run for your life?
When I was a senior in college about to apply for teaching jobs, I was told that school superintendents in Vermont were insisting on written assessments for student teaching for UVM grads because everyone was receiving A's. In a pool of candidates that are all excellent, excellent doesn't mean much.
When all books are wonderful, don't we lose touch with what wonderful means?