Innocent Bystander: Reviewer's Dues

Perhaps because I started out as a poet, and poets’ responsibilities are—and should be—mostly to themselves, I find it difficult to master each new kind of writing I’m confronted with. In school, I took quite naturally to verse, but my prose papers, essays, and thesis (what a terrible thesis it was!) were knotty, spastic, dense, and freighted far more heavily with words than with ideas.

For some reason—possibly because my father was an advertising man and I more or less grew up in the business—I didn’t find it quite as difficult to solve the problems of print copywriting when I first went to work, in 1953, for an advertising agency; but I came a long-term cropper on television when I essayed that slippery medium, and it wasn’t for years that I could turn out a creditable sixty-second script.

At the hoary age of forty, I became—because I suddenly wanted to—a book reviewer. To my surprise, found it an almost intolerable burden and a long-acting pain. After years of stumping and (I hoped) dazzling other people with anything cared to try in verse. I was now faced with the opposite situation; the biter had been bit. Now it was my sworn and bounden duty to penetrate and unravel the obscurities of other writers’ methods and messages, to dissipate the wet and inky smokescreen in which the wily squid conceals himself, and to set the delicate skeleton of the author’s true design in so many words before my readers. Besides being hard, grueling detective work, this was both scary and risky; armed only with a shaky analytic gift and my spotty, idiosyncratic store of reading, I was laying my sacred honor on the line each time I tried to pick another literary lock in public.

For the first couple of years, I heaved, floundered, and rolled like a drowning man in the trough of my overweening ambition. I drove myself to write reviews like an aristocrat driving himself to the gallows, with superficial sangfroid as thin as onionskin and a real clutch of fear each time I sat down at the typewriter.

Then, mercifully, I began to learn the ropes, to rise out of my funk (or muck sweat, as the English say), and look a little more objectively around me. I discovered that reviewing was not simply something that a soi-disant literary man did to fill time, amplify his tiny reputation, and (of course) earn a little money. An contratire. Reviewing, it was slowly and astoundingly revealed to me, was a vocation, a craft, a difficult discipline, with its own rules and customs, with a set of commandments and a rigid protocol. Mostly by making painful mistakes and leaping brashly into pitfalls, I began to amass some notion of the shape of a reviewer’s obligations to himself, to the author he reviews, to his editor, to his readers.

In short, I became aware of the moral imperatives of book reviewing. Funny as that may sound in a literary world raddled by cliques and claques and politics, by backscratching and back-stabbing, by overpraise and undernotice, I now believe that the would-be conscientious reviewer must be guided by a long list of stern prohibitions if he is to keep faith with himself and his various consumers. In the interests of controversy (and, I hope, of air-clearing), I set these down herewith.

1. Never review the work of a friend. All sorts of disasters are implicit here; a man and his work should be separate in the reviewer’s mind, and the work should be his only subject. If you know the man at all well, you become confused and diffident; your praise becomes fulsome, and you fail to convey the real merits and demerits of the book to the poor reader. The hardest review I ever wrote was of the (quite good) novel of a friend four years ago. Never again.

2. Never review the work of an enemy. Unless you fancy yourself as a public assassin, a sort of licensed literary hit man, you will instinctively avoid this poisonous practice like the plague it is. Corollary: never consent to be a hatchet man. If Editor X knows you are an old enemy of Novelist Y, he may (and shame on him, but it happens all the time) call on you to review Y’s latest book. Beware, on pain of losing your credibility.

3. Never review a book in a field you don’t know or care about. Once or twice I’ve been touted onto titles far from my beaten track. The resulting reviews were teeth-grindingly difficult to write and rotten in the bargain. Unless you’re a regular polymath, stick to your own last.

4. Never climb on bandwagons. You are not being paid to subscribe to a consensus, nor will your reader thank you for it. If a book has been generally praised (or damned), you add nothing to anybody’s understanding by praising (or damning) it in the same terms. Only if you have read the book with care and found something fresh to comment on should you attempt a review. Otherwise, find something else (how about the work of an unknown?) to write about. Or skip it; you’ll earn that money you need for a new 500-mm. mirror lens somewhere else.

5. Never read other reviews before you write your own. This is a tough rule to follow, because all reviewers are naturally curious about the reception of Z’s latest book. Nonetheless, you can’t help being subtly influenced by what John Leonard (or whoever) has to say. Eschew!

6. Never read the jacket copy or the publisher’s handout before reading and reviewing a book. Jacket copy (I know; I used to write it) is almost invariably misleading and inaccurate. The poor (literally: these downtrodden souls are. along with retail copywriters, the most underpaid people in advertising) writer is probably working from a summary compiled by the sales department, not from a firsthand reading of the book. The handouts are more of the same, only flackier.

7. Never review a book you haven’t read at least once. Believe it or not, some reviewers merely skim a book (or even depend on, horrors, the jacket copy) before reviewing it. Not only is this a flagrant abdication of responsibility; there is always the lurking danger of missing a vital clue in the text and making a public spectacle of yourself. It should happen frequently to all such lazy reviewers.

8. Never review a book you haven’t understood. If you haven’t figured out what the author is up to, there’s simply no way you can convey it to your reader. Reread the book; if necessary, read some of the author’s other books; if you still don’t know, forget it. The cardinal sin here is to go right ahead and condemn a half-understood book on the covert grounds that you haven’t found its combination.

9. Never review your own ideas instead of the author’s. Unless you’re the ranking pundit in the field and you have a scholarly bone to pick with the author, you have no right to use the book under inspection as a springboard for a trumpet voluntary of your own.

10. Never fail to give the reader a judgment and a recommendation on the book. And tell why. A reviewer is really a humble consumer adviser; his main job is to tell the public what to read and what to skip. It’s an important job because nobody can possibly keep up with all the books being published today.

11. Never neglect new writers. First novelists, in particular, get passed over too frequently for several reasons. The obvious reason is that Norman Mailer’s new novel is better copy than Hannah Furlong’s maiden effort. The less obvious reason is that it’s much harder for a reviewer to get an intelligent fix on an unknown. In short, it’s harder work to review a debutant.

12.Never assume that a writer is predictable. This is. in a way, the converse of the previous proposition. Part of the pleasure of picking up a new book by a writer you’ve read before is knowing what you’re about to read—the themes, the style, the old, familiar tricks. But what if the novelist has grown; what if he does something daring and unexpected? That’s when a lot of reviewers, myself included, are tempted to put him down for not rewriting himself. The only answer is to approach the book with great caution and read it on its own merits, forgetting what has gone before.

13. Never forget to summarize the story or the argument. What’s more maddening than a review that rhapsodizes (or bitches) for two thousand words about the author’s style, his technique, his place in letters without ever giving us a clue to the nature of the story, beyond the mention of an incident or two?

14. Never, on the other hand, write a review that is merely a plot summary and nothing more. This happens surprisingly often, especially in newspaper reviews. The reader of the review deserves a judgment, a rating, not simply a recapitulation.

15. Never impale a serious writer on his minor errors. Nobody’s perfect, as the old gag line says, and, given the susceptibility of even the most powerful piece of work to ridicule, it is frighteningly easy for the reviewer to have his fun at the author’s expense and end up distorting the value and import of the book. (Example: I recently read a good novel in which the author consistently misused the word “fulsome” and mixed up “she” and “her.” It would have been an act of willful irresponsibility to take the author to task for these small miscues, which were also his editor’s fault.)

16. Never write critical jargon. The day of the New Criticism, for all its goods, is mercifully past, and so, I’d hope, is the compulsion of some reviewers to pose and posture as anointed gospelers of the true and beautiful. The reviewer who writes for a general-circulation newspaper or magazine should have his typewriter unplugged if he persists in pedagogeries.

17. Never fail to take chances in judgment. Because it forces you to enter the mind of another on his own terms, reviewing is literally mind-expanding. Often the reviewer is astonished at his new conclusions and afraid to put them down on paper. This is a mistake; one of the highest critical acts is to arrive at a new understanding and communicate it to the reader.

18. Never pick a barn-door target to jeer at. Not long ago, one of the daily reviewers in the New York Times wasted an entire column on the new novel by one of the Irving Wallaces. Irving Stone? Jacqueline Susann? Or whoever. Anyway, it was painfully easy—shooting fish in a barrel—and painfully unworthy of the reviewer’s taste and talent. He might far better have reviewed a .good first novel.

19. Never play the shark among little fishes. Being a reviewer does not entitle you to savage the beginner, the fumbler, the less-than-accomplished writer. A sincere and decent effort demands a sincere and decent response. If you’ve ever struggled to write a book yourself, you know the vast amounts of pain and love it takes. To put down an honest attempt in gloating arrogance is to deal a crippling blow to a nascent career of possible promise.

20. Never compete with your subject. A reviewer is not. at least during his hours as reviewer, a rival of the person he’s reviewing. If he sees flaws in the work under inspection, he should report them, but he should not give vent to a long harangue on how he would have written the book. (If his hubris is that keen, perhaps he should take time off and write a book himself.)

In a word, then, the sins and temptations of reviewers are legion. As an incumbent sinner, I have more often than I like to think about been brought up short by the realization of my own weaknesses. Thus the list above. While I know I don’t have the constancy and fortitude to follow it to the letter, I try to bear it in mind, like a catechism, when I sit down to write about another person’s work. It is the least I can do for another poor sufferer who has taken the supreme risk of letting his dreams and talents go forth between covers, and for all those poor sufferers who simply like to read, and who rely, for better or worse, on the dim and uncertain skills of reviewers for a guide through the maze of new titles in their bright, unrevealing jackets on the shelves.