The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014


Scott Ellis

In 1831, the Edinburgh Review published “Characteristics,” in which Thomas Carlyle declared: “Nay, is not the diseased self-conscious state of Literature disclosed in this one fact, which lies so near us here, the prevalence of Reviewing!” Throughout its long history, reviewing has served many different roles, often simultaneously, and whether or not one accepts Carlyle's complaint about it as a diseased state of literary self-consciousness, reviewing has impacted the writing and reception of the novel from its development in the eighteenth century to the present. Among its many effects, reviewing advertised new books, it served as a medium for partisan and personal attacks and praise, it fostered the shift from patronage to professionalism, it positioned itself as a cultural mediator for morality, and perhaps most importantly, it created a public forum that allowed reviewers to speak about and evaluate literature in general and the novel in particular. This entry will address these aspects of reviewing and examine its impact on novel writing and reading practices over time.

Reviews and Periodicals

Reviewing as a public practice took shape in England during the mid-eighteenth century. England's Monthly Review and Critical Review, while not the first periodicals to publish reviews or notices of new books, became the most prominent forums for reviewing. Offered to their eighteenth-century readers monthly, these journals established a model of reviewing, expanded upon and refined by their numerous successors, that both evaluated books from a variety of genres and also used them to explore the books' topics over several paragraphs or pages. Like most that followed this format, these periodicals sought a readership whose interests were diverse enough to read reviews about books exploring such topics as mineralogy, poetry, and foreign travel, all within the same issue. Readers of the Dec. 1763 issue of the Critical Review, for instance, encountered an analysis of “some sensible and judicious observations obscured and encumbered by a laboured, turgid, and affected stile” in Edmund Burton's Antient Characters Deduced from Classical Remains before reading an account of Frances Chamberlaine Sheridan's play The Dupe, which “would have met with deserved success” had she “carefully revised...some particular parts.”

While book reviews have appeared in a variety of print media, the majority were published in periodicals that followed the general model set forth by the Monthly Review and Critical Review. Subsequent periodicals containing reviews were published in weekly, monthly, or quarterly formats. The length of reviews varied according to the publication, from one-sentence notices of recent publications to reviews that extended to more than seventy-five pages, in which the reviewed books were used as the basis for critical commentary on particular issues.

While some periodicals, like the two noted above, devoted all of their pages to reviews, others would include them in one section, where they would accompany general news about current events, original articles, and reprinted excerpts from miscellaneous works. At the end of the eighteenth century, for instance, New York's Monthly Magazine, edited by the novelist Charles Brockden Brown (who also wrote much of material in its pages), included original and reprinted reviews as one component of its format. These reviews tended to be brief, usually occupying no more than two pages each. Many other periodicals followed a similar format in their review sections. Brief reviews allowed writers and editors to introduce new books alongside news of the day and were particularly popular in publications distributed weekly, where the object was not to analyze extensively a book and its subject but to offer readers a glimpse of recently published works.

Other editors, though, believed that a less frequent publishing schedule would allow reviewers more time for thoughtful and critical consideration. In the early nineteenth century, the Edinburgh Review, for instance, appeared quarterly, its editors insisting that this schedule gave them more time to examine only the best literature and ideas in a more careful manner than its weekly and monthly counterparts. The prefatory advertisement to the first issue explains that this periodical will “decline any attempt at exhibiting a complete view of modern literature; and to confine their notice, in a great degree, to works that either have attained, or deserve a certain portion of celebrity.” With such a focus, each issue of the Edinburgh Review included fewer reviews than its counterparts, but those published were much more extensive than brief synopses, often extending for more than seventy pages per article.

Similarly, the Quarterly Review might only run eight reviews in a single issue, but that issue would be more than 250 pages long. These longer reviews allowed the writer to evaluate books, but these books also functioned as the focal point for a broader discussion about a topic or idea. In the Jan.—Apr. 1857 issue of England's Quarterly Review, for instance, a writer discusses American slavery in its twenty-eight-page review of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Dred and one of Charles Sumner's speeches. The reviewer offers advice for Stowe: cut out Nina's (the main character's) comments about herself and slow the pace of the story (329). But this analysis of Stowe's novel segues into an investigation of slavery itself, particularly in slavery's effects on the union of the U.S. After examining Sumner's speech—“The substance of the speech is as generally good as the style is frequently detestable”—and a variety of articles in American newspapers on slavery and the Fugitive Slave Law, the reviewer presciently concludes, “Every election approaches nearer and nearer to a civil war....[I]t does appear to us that a bond which every four years is on the point of separating must eventually snap” (352).

Along with editors' differing goals for their publications, the length of reviews and periodicals was also determined by material conditions of publication and distribution as well as reader demands. Thus, readers in the mid-nineteenth century witnessed the proliferation of competition for the quarterly, as weekly and daily newspapers and magazines, often bolstered by declining stamp rates and the removal of trade restrictions, regained their popularity and began to compete for readers' attention. Great Britain's the Athenaeum and Saturday Review, for instance, popularized shorter reviews in a weekly format, using readers' increasing appetite for literary knowledge to boost their sales and influence.

Creating and Distinguishing a Literary Marketplace

By fostering a public discussion about books and ideas, reviewing created a market for books and a desire to read. Summarizing the ascendancy of periodical reviews in the eighteenth century, Samuel Miller, a member of New York's intellectual elite, notes that while seventeenth-century criticism was mired in Latinized reflections directed only toward an educated few,

the Reviews of the last age, besides being multiplied to an unexampled extent, have received a popular cast, which has enabled them to descend from the closets of philosophers, and from the shelves of polite scholars, to the compting house of the merchant, to the shop of the artizan, to the bower of the husbandman, and, indeed, to every class of the community, excepting the most indigent and laborious. In fact, they have contributed to give a new aspect to the republic of letters, and may be considered as among the most important literary engines that distinguished the period under consideration. (238)

Reviewing was therefore instrumental in the proliferation of books and book publishing, as readers of reviews became book consumers, either through book sales themselves or through circulating libraries. Indeed, these libraries, along with reading rooms and bookstores, often depended upon reviews to determine which books to order. Dublin's Literary Journal (1744—49), for instance, explicitly sought to introduce Irish readers to foreign books and ideas, thereby fostering a wider reading public. Similarly, the North American Review begins its first issue (1815) by noting that the periodical would publish extracts of the editor's catalogue of books relating to the history of North America, and that “where the works noticed are scarce, several extracts from them will be made, which may at once serve to give a more complete idea of the books, and to relieve the dryness of a mere catalogue.”

Reviewing not only shaped a literary marketplace, but it also helped periodicals target specific segments of the reading population. Whereas the formative years of reviewing fostered the emergence of an increasingly literate public, reviewing in the nineteenth century often went further and shaped its writing to address different economic and cultural classes within this literate population. England's Academy and Saturday Review, influential mid-century periodicals, targeted a culturally sophisticated readership, one who was well versed in the literary and intellectual debates of the day. Similarly, England's Nineteenth Century served the interest of the highly educated and elite. Scholars have argued that by targeting specific socioeconomic classes, periodicals reflected increasing social divisions and brought such divisions to the very core of the literary marketplace.

Moreover, although editors and reviewers consistently argued for their own objectivity and impartiality, reviews and the periodicals in which they appeared often positioned themselves for specific audiences according to religion and politics. Liberal and conservative arguments, for instance, infiltrated even the most mundane book review, an act that not only served to support or challenge a particular perspective, but also effectively determined its readership. England's liberal The Spectator, for example, would often lend favorable reviews to those authors—Charlotte Brontë, Anthony Trollope, and others—whose storyworld and characters reflected the editors' and reviewers' ideas of morality. Similarly, the introductory essay to the first issue of the American Whig Review asserts that “to support freely and openly the principles and measures of the Whig party, is one great object of this review.” As Frank Luther Mott notes, the very content of reviews in the U.S. during the mid-nineteenth century was often shaped by social positions of writers and reviewers and even by geography. As Mott demonstrates, the New Englander, for instance, was biased against Boston authors, while the Southern Literary Messenger dismissed writers with abolitionist leanings (407). The reviews of these and similar publications therefore went beyond a basic examination of books by targeting readers with particular cultural, political, religious, and intellectual beliefs. This approach often polarized the literary marketplace, but it also fed into the core concerns of many readers, whose literary appetites demanded a steady supply of reviews.

Reviewing Criteria and the Novel

In the 1852 essay “Bird's-Eye View of English Literature in the Nineteenth Century” published in Hogg's Instructor, an Edinburgh weekly, a writer argues that “the age of Victoria is the age of the novel,” and that poetry, drama, and the essay have fallen in status. In their place, “the novel alone, or prose fiction, as we call it, retains its former honours, and has even usurped the province of history and philosophy.” While the novel, even in the nineteenth century, occupied only a small portion of the total publishing output, its emergence as a legitimate element of print culture demanded an increasing need among reviewers to establish criteria with which they could evaluate the genre. In a review of Mrs. (Agnes Maria) Bennett's novel, Ellen, Countess of Castle Howel (1794), for example, one reviewer in Philadelphia's American Monthly Review (1795) reflects upon the rise of novels and the need for critical evaluation: “Flowing and correct language, polished wit, sportive humour, the pathos of sensibility, and the charms of elegant simplicity, have introduced novels into the closets of the statesmen, of the grave divine, and of the careful father of a family, who best know how to appreciate their merits and defects:—but the young and gay require some assistance, and the sanction of these performances, in the schools, demands attention” (172). This desire to facilitate intellectual discussions about the novel while simultaneously establishing identifiable standards for evaluation stimulated the reviewing industry, and while evaluative criteria was not uniform across all periodicals, we can identify certain qualities that many reviewers shared.

Until the modernist period, reviews tended to favor novels that were realistic, with probable characters, events, and speech, and reviewers often challenged novels that deviated from mimetic representation of common, recognizable characters and situations. Many reviews of Nathaniel Hawthorne's and Herman Melville's novels, for example, criticized their allegorical tendencies and fanciful plots. Similarly, reviewers repeatedly rebuked the “romance” novel, one whose exaggerated romantic intrigues and seductive (usually male) characters would corrupt the minds of young (women) readers. These novels, allegorical or romantic, betrayed the expectations of the reader by not providing a realistic mirror of everyday life. As one writer evaluating Monima, or the Beggar Girl in the American Review (1802) noted, “Some of the circumstances are too improbable to admit of easy belief, and others too preposterous to be reasonably imagined.” Furthermore, “The circumstances of this tale seem so little to correspond with the natural course of things in Philadelphia, or any where [sic] else...that to bestow encomiums on this production would be considered as a most inordinate sacrifice to the vanity of authorship.” This is not to say that every review condemned any novel that was purported to be unrealistic, but the general tendency of reviews as they sought to shape novel writing and reading practices was to encourage authors to reproduce as faithfully as possible a storyworld that readers could envision as their own.

Similarly, reviewing in every era examined the morality of the novel and consistently exalted or condemned works according to a “proper” moral stance. In 1830, a writer for the Edinburgh Review noted simply that “we require from the novel that it shall be moral in its tendency, it shall be amusing, and that it shall exhibit a true and faithful delineation of the class of society which it professes to depict.” Characters in each era were to behave in a manner that conformed to social and religious codes, and when writers had their characters break those codes, reviewers were quick to condemn the novel. In a review of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, for instance, a writer for the Rambler notes that the novel “is, indeed, one of the coarsest books which we ever perused....There is a tendency to relapse into that class of ideas, expressions, and circumstances, which is most connected with the grosser and more animal portion of our nature; and that the detestable morality of the most prominent character in the story is accompanied with every sort of palliation short of unblushing justification.” Such approaches to morality were very common in reviews. Nina Baym notes that of the more than 2,000 reviews she explores in her book about antebellum book reviewing in the U.S., only one—written by Edgar Allan Poe—claims that morality should not be examined in a review (173). Novelists as diverse in time and style as William Godwin, Henry James, and James Joyce had their novels criticized on moral grounds, and while negative reviews based on morality did not necessarily force writers to alter their craft—indeed, Joyce and other modernists would take such criticism as justification for their art—reviewers nonetheless continued to try to uphold moral standards in their reviews.

The standards that the reviewers trumpeted, though, were often tinged with assumptions about gender, both for readers and authors. Novel-readers were often considered, implicitly and at times explicitly, to be young women, and reviews often shaped its evaluative criteria with this audience in mind. Thus, a reviewer in Graham's Magazine (1853) evaluating Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin asserted: “Our female agitators have abandoned Bloomers in despair, and are just now bestride a new hobby—an intense love of black folks, in fashionable novels!” Similarly, as Nicola Thompson (1996) explains, the works of such authors as Emily Brontë and Anthony Trollope were often reviewed according to cultural assumptions of male- and female-appropriate topics, whereby such writers were often chastised in reviews for transgressing unwritten codes about what novelistic fare is appropriate for men and women writers. Reviewers therefore both reflected and shaped public assumptions about gender in novels, and writers were forced to contend with such limiting assumptions.

Reviewing and Writers

By making public a critical language that readers could use when evaluating the novel, reviewing was able to shape public discourse about literature, but its influence often went beyond that of readers to the writers themselves. Understanding the growing influence of reviewing in public consciousness, writers quickly became attuned to the comments about their work. As “Candidus” argued in New York's Monthly Magazine in 1799:

Reviewers are to be considered as auditors who comment on our discourse in our presence, and likewise as men who employ themselves in diffusing their opinions of our merits in as wide a circle as possible....No wonder, therefore, that we are anxious for the good word of reviewers, that we eagerly investigate their verdict, and are dissatisfied or pleased in proportion to the censures or praises conferred.

In pursuing the good word of reviewers, many writers therefore shaped their work, consciously or not, to accord with critical opinions.

During the eighteenth century, reviewers spent more time examining poetry, history, and other topics than the novel, but nonetheless those reviews of fiction served to shape the style, content, and morality of much subsequent fiction. If the reviewers rather than the writers were taking charge of a public literary discourse, many novelists recognized the need to listen to their advice. For instance, Frank Donoghue argues that in responding to reviews critical of Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne altered his writing style in his subsequent novel, A Sentimental Journey (1768), which became one of the most formative works in the genre of the sentimental novel.

Melville, moreover, received a warm reception in many reviews for Moby-Dick (1851), but he tended to focus on the prominent scathing comments. A reviewer in London's Athenaeum asserted: “the style of this tale is in places disfigured by mad (rather than bad) English; and its catastrophe is hastily, weakly, and obscurely managed”; one in Boston's Post argued that Melville's novel “is not worth the money asked for it, either as a literary work or as a mass of printed paper”; and another in the New York Independent calls this and other Melville novels “a primitive formation of profanity and indecency...which makes it impossible for a religious journal heartily to commend any of the works of this author which we have ever perused.” These and other reviews coincided with a weak reception for Moby-Dick, and when Melville submitted part of a manuscript for his follow-up novel Pierre, his publisher reduced the terms of Melville's contract, events that led the writer to significantly alter the story by adding details about Pierre as a failed writer abused by the literary community. For this novel, Melville, in turn, received even worse reviews than for Moby-Dick, forcing the writer to reassess his work as a novelist. Many scholars go so far as to suggest that the reviews of Moby-Dick and Pierre may have caused Melville to suffer an emotional breakdown.

If novelists frequently responded to reviews of their work, so too did novelists themselves take up the pen and review others' books. Writers as diverse as Sir Walter Scott, Edgar Allan Poe, William Makepeace Thackeray, Virginia Woolf, John Updike, and Italo Calvino honed their critical skills in book reviews, using their own approaches to writing as a lens through which they evaluated the work of their contemporaries. The reciprocal nature of novelist-as-reviewer at times fostered competition and even animosity, but such work was just as likely to spur attention to fellow novelists. Sir Walter Scott, for instance, exemplifies both possibilities. On the one hand, Scott helped to establish the Quarterly Review (1809) in order to counteract the scathing reviews of his writing and that of Robert Southey (1774—1843) in the Edinburgh Review, a move that led to open competition and animosity between the two periodicals. On the other hand, Scott was often judicious and even generous in his reviews of contemporaries. In his review of Jane Austen's Emma in the Quarterly Review, for example, Scott writes that she copies “from nature as she really exists in the common walks of life, and present[s] to the reader, instead of the splendid scenes of an imaginary world, a correct and striking representation of that which is daily taking place around him” (192).

Book Reviewers

Reviewing as a practice and occupation varied widely depending upon the periodical, and there is no uniform experience for all reviewers. While some writers used their reviews to strengthen their reputation and, at times, their fame, the identity of other writers was never known to the public. In the eighteenth century, the Monthly Review and Critical Review published reviewers' comments anonymously, and many subsequent periodicals followed suit. The Edinburgh Review reinforced the status of the anonymous review, and this practice was followed by most nineteenth-century reviews. Many editors believed that ideas gained more credence if they were not assigned to a particular reviewer but instead were unsigned, thereby reflecting the opinions of many. Moreover, anonymity allowed reviewers the freedom to criticize or laud the work of a friend or prominent writer without fear of reprisal or public cries of favoritism. Anonymity therefore gave reviewers the freedom to offer honest commentary about any novel, regardless of the author. Women writers also benefited from anonymity, allowing them to participate in public discussions without incurring the rebukes of those who dismissed their capability of doing so. George Eliot, for instance, honed her critical tongue in anonymous reviews, which led to her later work at the Westminster Review before writing novels of her own. Similarly, Margaret Oliphant wrote prolifically and anonymously for Blackwood's Magazine, work that gave her an important public voice on contemporary fiction and ideas during the second half of the nineteenth century.

Of course, anonymity also worked against honest reviewing, as the absence of one's name at times fostered “puffery,” in which an anonymous reviewer extolled the virtues of a novel written or published by a friend. For instance, the success of Pamela (1740), Samuel Richardson's first novel, was due in part to a favorable anonymous review by William Webster of the Weekly Miscellany, who had a personal debt of ninety pounds forgiven by Richardson; and Mary Shelley anonymously penned for Blackwood's a glowing account of Cloudesley (1830), a novel by her father William Godwin (Mullan). Similarly, anonymity effectively concealed the identity of writers—Sir Walter Scott and John Davis, among others—who positively reviewed their own work.

This practice, however, was not without its detractors. Many writers and editors understood the deception that often occurred behind the veil of anonymity and sought to change this practice. In his periodical, the London Review, Richard Cumberland challenged conventions of anonymity and stated in the first issue (1809): “A piece of crepe may be a convenient mask for a highwayman; but a man that goes upon an honest errand, does not want it and will disdain to wear it” (Vann and VanArsdel, 124). While Cumberland's periodical did not last long, one of the most influential periodicals, the Parisian Revue des deux mondes, begun in 1829 and published bi-weekly, assigned names to nearly all of its writers. Printing reviews as well as serialized fiction, drama, and other miscellaneous articles, the Revue published the work of such authors as Dumas and Balzac and led to many periodicals around the world to try to copy its style and format, one component of which was to identify its writers. In the following decades such periodicals as the Fortnightly Review, Contemporary Review, The Academy, and Nineteenth Century affixed identities to their writers, including reviewers, as a way to challenge the conventional understanding of the necessity of anonymity.

The coexistence of anonymous and attributed reviewers also coincided with differing practices of remuneration. The pay scale for reviewers ranged from no compensation other than self-satisfaction to rates that would enable a reviewer to make a modest living. In the latter category, reviewers for the Edinburgh Review and the Quarterly Review were sometimes paid up to £100 for extensive reviews, which often grew to seventy pages or more (Shattock). However, many other reviewers found payment for reviews very low, even for elite journals, with the hope that the contributors would consider adding their voice to the public sphere payment enough. The Saturday Review, for instance, paid its contributors two to three guineas per article in the late 1850s, although this payment rose to three pounds and ten shillings per article by 1869 (1941, M. M. Bevington, Saturday Review, 1855—1868, 37—38). We also see that the pay for reviewers became an element of competition. In the final decades of the nineteenth century, reviewers in the U.S. were getting paid five to ten dollars a page for the Atlantic Monthly, whereas competitors such as the Century, boasting a larger number of subscriptions, were offering reviewers double that amount (1994, E. Sedgwick, Atlantic Monthly, 178).

Whatever the remuneration, reviewing has offered the reading public an influential yet contentious voice in the public sphere. Its best and worst impulses were perhaps described best by William Dean Howells, who wrote, edited, and felt the sting of reviews for more than five decades. In his 1866 essay entitled “Literary Criticism,” published in the Round Table, a New York weekly, Howells challenged the poor state of literary reviews. The function of proper reviewing, he wrote, “is entirely distinct from the mere trade-puff of the publisher, the financial comments of the advertiser, or the bought-and-sold eulogium of an ignorant, careless, or mercenary journalist. It is equally removed from the wholesale and baseless attacks of some rival publication house, or from the censure which is inspired by political, personal, or religious hatred.” Instead, Howells desired to read and practice a better style of reviewing: “True criticism, therefore, consists of a calm, just, and fearless handling of its subject, and in pointing out in all honesty whatever there is hitherto undiscovered of merit, and, in equal honesty, whatever there has been concealed of defect.”

Such comments and approaches to reviewing have shaped reading and writing practices for nearly three centuries, and this impact continues to be felt today. Although the publishing industry as a whole is struggling with declining revenue and readership, as evidenced by cuts to reviewing departments in many major newspapers at the beginning of the twenty-first century, reviewing continues to affect the writing, reception, and sales of novels. Major review publications such as the Times Literary Supplement and the New York Review of Books, together with an increasing number of online book-review venues, give reviewing a forum that allows it to flourish and develop alongside the contemporary novel.


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2. Demata, M. and D. Wu, eds. (2002), British Romanticism and the “Edinburgh Review.

3. Donoghue, F. (1996), Fame Machine.

4. Graham, W.J. (1930), English Literary Periodicals.

5. Gross, J. (1969), Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters.

6. Miller, S. (1803), Brief Retrospect of the Eighteenth Century.

7. Mott, F.L. (1957), History of American Magazines, vol. 1.

8. Mullan, J. (2007), Anonymity.

9. Roper, D. (1978), Reviewing before the Edinburgh, 1788—1802.

10. Shattock, J. (1989), Politics and Reviewers.

11. Thompson, N.D. (1996), Reviewing Sex.

12. Vann, J.D. and R.T. VanArsdel, eds. (1989), Victorian Periodicals.

13. Waters, M.A. (2004), British Women Writers and the Profession of Literary Criticism, 1789—1832.