Three Golden Rules for book reviewing: What are they?

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July 21 2011 6:57 AM

How Not To Write a Book Review

What a hatchet job on John Keats teaches us.

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In fact, both reviewers are undone not simply by their own meanness or eagerness to shine or unfairness or social or political prejudices—nor by blindness to the genius of Keats. Their self-wounding failure is more fundamental than that: Both reviewers fail to fulfill the three golden requirements for book reviews.

I'd like to think that the three essentials for reviewers were invented by Aristotle, preserved by his students, and handed down for thousands of years by oral tradition. After all, before the review was an important category of journalism, before physical books, even before printing, readers must have asked other readers to report on works they had not yet read from scrolls or tablets.

I first encountered the three requirements in the 1970s, when I used to write the old, traditional Consumer Reports style of reviews I have in mind here—sometimes under a pen name—because I needed the money, even in the small quantities paid to reviewers. This was the age of the typewriter, and one of the newspapers I wrote for gave me the rules as part of the same photocopied style-sheet that specified the quality of ribbon, the size of margins, where to double-space, when to use italics, all-caps, or quotation marks for titles, where to put the reviewer's byline, and so forth.

In that old style-sheet, put together when books and newspapers were in their heyday, I found the three principles that have guided me ever since as a writer and as a reader. Of course, this three-part Golden Obligation may be filled compactly, on the way to essayistic arguments and insights, as in many a Slate piece. Great models like G.B. Shaw's music reviews or Max Beerbohm on theater are great because they show how to do the essentials, then get quickly beyond them, in ways that are fun to read.

Every book review, said the anonymous document, must follow three rules:

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.

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If this template is not actually Aristotelian, it has that philosopher's breathtaking plainness and penetration. To sneer at it as obvious would be a mistake. Even the clunky or stammering expression of the three rules ("what the reviewer thinks about what the author says about that thing the book is about") works as a hammer, driving home the essential principles and their distinctly separate, yet profoundly interrelated nature.

Applying the three-part standard to every book review I read, I find that many—or most?—fill only one or two of the requirements. Sometimes a reviewer dutifully paraphrases a book, fulfilling Rule One with a stab at Two, but seems too shy or fearful for Three. Another kind of writer, eager to show off, proceeds directly to Rule Three with a perfunctory glance at One and nothing about Two. Only a few reviewers do their work well enough to provide all three kinds of information, and a certain number—disciples of John Wilson Croker—avoid all three.

(Keats' Endymion is about a young man's devotion to imagination as the center of his life. Keats describes the effect of such devotion as painful and bewildering as well as transformative and ecstatic. Much of what Keats says on the subject is soft: both muddy and naive. Much is eloquent. Croker does not interrupt his ridicule to mention any of this.)

In a sense, Croker cannot be blamed for being unpleasant, or mistaken, or for attacking a beloved figure: Being wrong in judgment and doing wrong as a person, it can be argued, are both within any reviewer's rights. In a book review, even the greatness of Keats and the poignancy of his life story are beside the point. Even John Wilson Croker's introductory confession might be tolerable if somehow, despite not reading most of John Keats' book, Croker had managed nonetheless to follow the Three Golden Rules—instead of ducking them. That is unforgivable.

Former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky is Slate's poetry editor. His Selected Poems is now available.

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