I don’t write many reviews these days. Ten years at Book World gave me my fill, and it was time to focus on on other kinds of writing. That’s been a happy decision, but I still read a lot of reviews (and write them once in a while), and I still find the push-and-pull between writers and critics a fascinating thing to watch. The recent bad behavior from Alice Hoffman and Alain de Botton made me think again about how that game’s played, or should be. So I came up with a code. (Authors need some guidelines too, as Hoffman and de Botton demonstrated.) I’ve said a lot of this before. Much of it is advice I gave my students at Eugene Lang College a few years ago, when I taught a seminar on “The Art of the Review.” Much of it is obvious, at least to me. This is a personal list, and there are probably lots of good reasons to bend or break at least some of these rules. Please don’t break Rules 1, 6, or 10, though, or you’ll break my heart.
1. Read the book. All of it.
2. Be honest. Say what you think and why, even if the author’s not going to love you for it. You won’t do readers or literature any good if you ladle out helpings of false praise. If you like the book, don’t be afraid to say that, either. Just be damn sure you explain why. (See Rule No. 3.)
3. Do not hide behind vagueness and cliche. Exactly what makes this book intriguing, upsetting, offputing, worth my time or worth flinging across the room? Did it make you angry, happy, or leave you cold? Tell me only that an author has “luminous prose” and I will read no further.
4. Resist the temptation to be mean just because you can. Nobody loves to read a good savaging more than I do, but it has to be justified. Some books manage to be such a waste of time and paper that righteous indignation or witty evisceration is called for. Before you whip out the scalpel, though, ask yourself: Are you an avenging Fury, setting right the wrongs done to literature, or are you a narcissist on a power trip?
5. Remember that the author is a human being who (we hope) put a lot into this book. You don’t have to give an A for effort. You should be aware that, to the author, a negative review can feel like a knife in the thigh, maybe even the heart. As de Botton put it so memorably to Caleb Crain, “You have now killed my book in the United States, nothing short of that. So that’s two years of work down the drain in one miserable 900 word review.”
Note: This rule does not trump Rule No. 2. Don’t let the author’s humanity cripple you as a critic. To publish a book is to invite people to read and react. Authors, if you can’t take some honest heat, don’t read the reviews.
6. Be entertaining. You can define “entertaining” in many ways. Dullness is unforgivable. A 900-word review demands less of a writer than a 50,000-word novel does (see Rule No. 9), but you still have to make those 900 words worth the reader’s time. People blame the fading away of book-review sections on cultural and economic changes. I say that the lazy review–heavy on plot summary, light on style, substance, and genuine criticism–has played its role in the decline.
7. Don’t spoil the surprise. There are times when it’s necessary or useful to give away elements of a story. If you must, though, give readers a heads-up.
8. Think twice before you accept an assignment. It’s okay to say no. True, we all need to make a living, not that there’s much of one to be had from book reviewing. But if an editor asks you to review the latest teen-vampire novel and you would rather be bitten by a vamp than read about one, take a pass. In most cases you will not do yourself, your editor, the reader, or the author any favors by tackling a book you’re guaranteed to loathe.
9. Do not kid yourself that a review is the equal of a book. It’s not. Sure, reviewing can be important and useful work. Writing a book is harder and takes a lot longer. End of story.
10. Read the book. All of it.