Genetically, the genre of the review is closely related to the essay. The family resemblance points to their common origin. While Montaigne’s Essais can be understood both as an examination of the self and as a running commentary of books that reviews the entire tradition as such, the review is like the essay’s younger sibling.
In the 17th century, reviews emerged at the moment when correspondence between scholars, philosophers, and scientists no longer satisfied the demands for communication of a growing intellectual community. As a response, Pierre Bayle began in 1684 his journal Nouvelles de la République des Lettres (News from the Republic of Letters).
Twenty years earlier, in 1665, Denis de Sallo initiated Le Journal de Sçavans (The journal of the educated), the pioneering model for 18thcentury review journals. The Journal was just a few months ahead of the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions, founded the same year. In Germany, the Acta Eruditorum followed in 1682, and from 1688 to 1690 was published Christian Thomasius’ Freymüthige Gedancken oder MonatsGespräche (Frank thoughts or monthly entertainments), the first review journal in German.
While the first review journal began in France, it was in Germany, and, by way of the importation of German Romanticism, in Britain, that the review gained importance as an independent literary genre. Among the multitude of literary forms the great essayists of 17th– and 18th-century France employed, book reviews in effect did not exist. It was not until the arrival of Romanticism that reviewing took hold in France. While encyclopedias served as the new medium in France, the review of books and periodicals took center stage in 18th– century Germany. Whereas intellectual life in France was reduced to small coteries in Paris which made the writing of reviews obsolete, cultural life in Germany and Britain remained largely decentralized and dependent on the flow of printed news. And while the Parisian pecking order secured some stability, decentralized republics of letters established discursive order by way of mutual critical reviewing.
It was not long before the new book reviewing, advertising, and often self-advertising industry was taken to task. In 1714, Thomasius launched another journal, his Auffrichtige und Unpartheyische Gedancken über die Journale, Extracte und Monaths-Schrifften (Honest and impartial thoughts about the journals, excerpts, and monthly periodicals) just for the purpose of such meta-reviewing. With the increase of publications, it became more and more necessary to maintain an overview of the book market, which, in the 18th century, expanded exponentially.
From 1739, the Göttingische Gelehrten Anzeigen reviewed publications in all fields. In 1749 Ralph Griffiths started the Monthly Review, and in 1756 Tobias Smollett introduced fierce competition with his Critical Review, which counted Samuel Johnson, David Hume, Oliver Goldsmith, and later Samuel Taylor Coleridge among its contributors.
With the emergence of literature as a field in its own right, and an onslaught of fiction produced for mass consumption, the demand for review journals exclusively dedicated to literature led to specialized periodicals. With Friedrich Nicolai’s Bibliothek der schönen Wissenschaften und schönen Künste (1757–65; Library of the humanities and fine arts), Briefe die neueste Literatur betreffend (1758–61; Letters on contemporary literature), and Allgemeine deutsche Bibliothek (1765–1806; Universal German library), reviews broke ground for modern German literary criticism and aesthetic theory. The Allgemeine Literaturzeitung (1785–; Universal literary news) became the organ for Kantian philosophy. Here, Schiller published his reviews which shaped the program for the canon of German literature he envisaged. The publication of Athenäum, edited by the Schlegel brothers in 1798, announced a shift in literary criticism to the newly discovered subjectivity. Novalis’ remark, “the review is complement to the book,” commented on the new critical significance the review had gained. In 1826, Hegel’s two-decade-old project, the Jahrbücher für wissenschaftliche Kritik (Yearbook for critical humanities), was realized. Its turn away from the Romantics carried the mark of Hegel, who turned the review into fullfledged philosophical critique, reflecting upon the theoretical implications of the stand the author under review takes.
Until the Revolution, publishers in France were dependent on the tightly regulated granting of printing privileges. It was thus only after the Revolution that review journals proliferated. In Britain, the English Review (1783–) was absorbed in 1796 into the Analytical Review (1788–99) which, however, won a reputation not for its abstracts but for its radical opinions. In 1793, the British Critic joined the scene. The Edinburgh Review (1802–1929) set a new style and became the model of all British reviews of the
19th century. Independent from the book trade, it took on the review of publications in all fields in a liberal, challenging, and critical fashion. More than merely a Whig party organ, it was so successful that it led in 1809 to the establishment of a counter journal, the Quarterly Review, which by 1820 was a distinctly conservative periodical. Among the 60 British periodicals carrying reviews in the first quarter of the 19th century, the Edinburgh and the Quarterly were the leaders.
By the early 19th century, the basic types of reviews had been introduced, from the abstract to lengthy studies of the books at hand, which could also become merely the pretext for independent essays associated with the subjects of the books reviewed.
Anonymity of reviewer was customary. The Jahrbücher für wissenschaftliche Kritik was the first to have articles signed with full names; before then, reviews had been either unsigned or signed with a letter or symbol. Contributors could be identified only by insiders. Protected by anonymity, reviews could be impartial and objective, or simply a disguise to promote one’s opinions or own works. However, shameless self-promotion or favorable reviews of friends under the shield of anonymity could lead to the erosion of trust and reputation. As early as 1778, the author of Anfangsgründe der Rezensirkunst (Introduction to the art of reviewing) joked that the only difference between an author of pasquinades and a reviewer was that the latter could not be sued.
Today reviewing has become an industry in its own right, crucial for library acquisition and the dissemination of information. But, interestingly, while scholarly publishing has become subject to explicit control mechanisms, reviews have escaped such examination.
Reviews have remained an arena for debate, and abuse of the freedom they offer is regrettable. Yet to “referee” them would in the end abolish their distinguishing characteristics. Self-regulation is crucial to the review, even where it seems to set up its writer as judge. The best practitioners of the Enlightenment and Romantic reviews, from Moses Mendelssohn to Lessing to Hegel, kept close to the review’s relative, the essay, in that they aimed not to judge and sentence, but to contextualize and examine the books under review to provide sufficient analysis for the readers to judge for themselves. This, it could be argued, is still the ultimate criterion for what makes a good review.
While book reviews are now considered de rigueur for a serious intellectual paper, changes in the wake of the electronic revolution will have far-reaching consequences; to the extent that books as we know them disappear, reviews in print form will become anachronistic. For the time being, London’s Times Literary Supplement, the New York Times Book Review, and especially the New York Review of Books may—in the
Englishspeaking world—serve as reliable trend spotters. Sophisticated readers may wish to turn to the richly diverse market of print media to satisfy their need for current reviews. No single paper can claim any longer to cover book production in its entirety.
Carlsson, Anni, Die deutsche Buchkritik von der Reformation bis zur Gegenwart, Berne and Munich: Francke, 1969
Clive, John Leonard, Scotch Reviewers: The Edinburgh Review, 1802–1815,
Drewry, John E., Writing Book Reviews, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1974 Hayden, John O., The Romantic Reviewers, 1802–1824, London: Routledge and Kegan
Paul, and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969 (original edition, 1945)
Morgan, Peter F., Literary Critics and Revieivers in Early 19th– Century Britain, London: Croom Helm, 1983
Roper, Derek, Reviewing Before the “Edinburgh,” 1788–1802, London: Methuen, and Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1978
Rowland, Herbert, and Karl J.Fink, editors, The Eighteenth Century German Book Review, Heidelberg: Winter, 1995
Walford, A.K., editor, Reviews and Reviewing: A Guide, London: Mansell, and Phoenix, Arizona: Oryx Press, 1986
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