OVER AT Slate, Robert Pinsky gives a run-down of how NOT to write a book review, calling attention to some 200 year-old critics of John Keats whose snark comes off as potent as ever, even today:
Reviewers have been sometimes accused of not reading the works which they affected to criticise. On the present occasion we shall anticipate the author’s complaint, and honestly confess that we have not read his work. Not that we have been wanting in our duty – far from it – indeed, we have made efforts almost as superhuman as the story itself appears to be, to get through it; but with the fullest stretch of our perseverance, we are forced to confess that we have not been able to struggle beyond the first of the four books of which this Poetic Romance consists. We should extremely lament this want of energy…were it not for one consolation – namely, that we are no better acquainted with the meaning of the book through which we have so painfully toiled, than we are with that of the three which we have not looked into.
This is all sharply pin-pointed and dipped in that respectable earnest formula of ‘heartfelt criticism,’ but what it completely fails to do, says Pinsky, is follow the three golden rules of reviewing a book:
1. The review must tell what the book is about.
2. The review must tell what the book’s author says about that thing the book is about.
3. The review must tell what the reviewer thinks about what the book’s author says about that thing the book is about.
“To sneer at it as obvious would be a mistake,” writes Pinsky, as “the stammering expression of the three rules works as a hammer, driving home the essential principles and their distinctly separate, yet profoundly interrelated nature.”
The interrelated-ness of everything, I think, is what’s most important when reviewing anything, not just a book or piece of writing. There’s an aim (what something is about or after) to everything, but also a person or team behind that–and as reviewers it’s all too easy to simply say how something “makes you feel.” But it’s not about you, the creator, or even the thing itself. The aim of the review is to draw the connections between it all.
This is the Bored Student’s longstanding criticism of art critics, that they’re just blathering about how a twisted piece of metal and hair “makes them feel,” whereas any professional will tell you that their feelings are rarely part of a work considered. It’s not about the creator, it’s not even about the product, it’s about what the product’s about, and the connections made into it.
Example: Your favorite mom-and-pop barbeque joint. It’s dirty, the service sucks, and aside from one or two things on the menu, lacking in impressive taste or deliciousness. But you love it for the same reason that the reviews which brought you in praise it: it’s about the vibe, the end goal of the restaurant, and how everyone that enters and leaves connects with it. Not the food, but what the food and the place are about.
Notice that the rules don’t even require direct experience with the thing. All that matters is some considerate thought. It seems easy, but it’s not.
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Jason Wire graduated from Vanderbilt University in 2010 and spent the year after writing and teaching English in Spain. He's back in the states now, but doesn't know where. Follow him @wirejr.
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