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.

John Keats. Click image to expand.
John Keats' Endymion got bad reviews—but were they fair?

Possibly the most famous book review, ever, was written by the young Irish wit and polemicist John Wilson Croker. Croker is still remembered, though obscurely, as a founder of modern political conservatism. What's more, according to some sources, John Wilson Croker invented the very term "conservative."

The opening passage of Croker's review, published in the September 1818 Quarterly Review, displays his formidable and venomous approach. What he writes is smart as well as odious. It is also quite wrong, in more than one sense of the word:       

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, or whatever it may be, on our parts, 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.

Few 21st-century journalists can match the cool snark-power of this passage. Croker's rhetorical muscle and shrewdness shine through the formal idiom and manners of 200 years ago. This is nastiness at its most effulgent.

He continues, with a well-calculated, languidly aristocratic tone of affected vagueness, as though not sure where he read a snotty phrase he borrows:  

It is not that Mr Keats, (if that be his real name, for we almost doubt that any man in his sense would put his real name to such a rhapsody,) it is not, we say, that the author has not powers of language, rays of fancy, and gleams of genius - he has all these; but he is unhappily a disciple of the new school of what has been somewhere called Cockney poetry; which may be defined to consist of the most incongruous ideas in the most uncouth language. ...

[Mr Keats] is a copyist of Mr Hunt; but he is more unintelligible, almost as rugged, twice as diffuse, and ten times more tiresome and absurd than his prototype ...

No wonder this review was known as the one that killed John Keats. Byron and Shelley exaggerated when they suggested that: Tuberculosis killed Keats. But figuratively speaking there's a lethal, snake-tongue shimmer to the small dollop of qualified praise for "rays of fancy" and "gleams of genius."

The snob's reference to "Cockney poetry" refers to an even nastier, more extreme, longer and less elegant review of Keats' Endymion by John Gibson Lockhart in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine a month before. Lockhart, as crudely mean as the bad guy in a bad movie, is even more shamelessly ad hominem than Croker, though not as clever. Keats, he explains, suffers from the writing mania that has afflicted "farm-servants and unmarried ladies ... our very footmen compose tragedies." Lockhart writes:

To witness the disease of any human understanding, however feeble, is distressing; but the spectacle of an able mind reduced to a state of insanity is of course ten times more afflicting. It is with such sorrow as this that we have contemplated the case of Mr. John Keats. This young man appears to have received from nature talents of an excellent, perhaps even of a superior order— talents which, devoted to the purposes of any useful profession, must have rendered him a respectable, if not an eminent citizen. His friends, we understand, destined him to the career of medicine, and he was bound apprentice some years ago to a worthy apothecary in town. But all has been undone by a sudden attack of the malady. ... Whether Mr. John had been sent home with a diuretic or composing draught to some patient far gone in the poetical mania, we have not heard. This much is certain, that he has caught the infection, and that thoroughly.

It might seem that the brilliant Croker and the undistinguished Lockhart both suffer from a particularly large piece of bad luck: The Cockney apothecary's apprentice they are writing about is one of the greatest poets ever to write in English. And where could any reviewer find self-protection against a calamity of that magnitude—even if Endymion does have many defects, some of them noted by Croker.

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.

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.