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The Literary Racket

“These days,” writes Claire Tomalin in the Guardian’s “The Week in Books” miscellany (September 6th), “prizes sell books more than reviews”. But prizes, sadly, cannot be for everyone, which is presumably why, as John Dugdale relates in the same column, the novelist Stephan Q Harper had one of his fictional creations, Neville Addison-Graves III, review his (Harper’s) novel, Venice Under Glass, a detective story in which it seems all the characters are teddy bears, on a blog hosted by one Basil Baker (also apparently a bear). “You wrote a review of your own book?” a commenter called April asked; Harper breezily retorted that this was “standard practice”.

I am sure that most of us find such a proposition shocking, but the press, literary or otherwise, did not always adhere to the high standards of probity which are well-nigh universally in application today. Here is Edgar Allan Poe on how the literary racket worked (or how he thought it worked) in the 1840s:

Let in America a book be published by an unknown, careless, or uninfluential author; if he publishes it ‘on his own account’ he will be confounded at finding that no notice is taken of it at all. If it has been entrusted to a publisher of caste, there will appear forthwith in each of the leading business papers a variously-phrased critique to the extent of three or four lines, and to the effect that ‘we have received from the fertile press of So and So a volume entitled This and That, which appears to be well worthy perusal, and which is ‘got up’ in the customary neat style of the enterprising firm of So and So.’ On the other hand, let our author have acquired influence, experience, or (what will stand him in good stead of either) effrontery, on the issue of his book he will obtain from his publisher a hundred copies (or more, as the case may be), ‘for distribution among friends connected with the press.’ Armed with these, he will call personally either at the office or (if he understands his game) at the private residence of every editor within his reach, enter into conversation, compliment the journalist, interest him, as if incidentally, in the subject of the book, and finally, watching an opportunity, beg leave to hand him ‘a volume which, quite opportunely, is on the very matter now under discussion.’ If the editor seems sufficiently interested, the rest is left to fate; but if there is any lukewarmness (usually indicated by a polite regret on the editor’s part that he really has ‘no time to render the work that justice that its importance demands’), then our author is prepared to understand and to sympathise; has, luckily, a friend thoroughly conversant with the topic, and who (perhaps) could be persuaded to write some account of the volume – provided that the editor would be kind enough just to glance over the critique and amend it in accordance with his own particular views. Glad to fill half a column or so of his editorial space, and still more glad to get rid of his visitor, the journalist assents. The author retires, consults the friend, instructs him touching the strong points of the volume, and insinuating in some shape a quid pro quo gets an elaborate critique written (or what is more usual and far more simple, writes it himself), and his business in this individual quarter is accomplished. Nothing more than sheer impudence is requisite to accomplish it in all.

Not everyone, of course, can carry this off, men of genius and intellectual distinction being frequently too high-minded and/or lacking the necessary effrontery. “They, consequently, and their works, are utterly overwhelmed and extinguished in the flood of the apparent public adulation upon which in gilded barges are borne triumphant the ingenious toady and the diligent quack.”