Robert Pinsky had a great piece in Slate yesterday about a literary hatchet job . . . from 1818. The lessons we can take from it, however, are timeless. In “How Not to Write a Book Review,” Pinksy enumerates the three rules of book reviewing:
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.
Seem overly simplified to you? I’m with Pinsky, who writes that “To sneer at it as obvious would be a mistake.” Nearly all book reviewers execute the first rule and then jump straight to their critique of the book. But to ignore the author’s intention—and to criticize the author’s work while ignoring that intention—is to do an injustice to both the author and his potential readers. To cite but one obvious example, it’s unfair to review a book as a work of literary fiction if the author intended a light entertainment.
These rules can be helpful for reviewers who are reviewing books they wouldn’t normally choose to read. And I might suggest a fourth rule, too:
4. The reviewer must remember that he is writing not for himself or the people he wants to impress but for the people the writer is hoping to reach.
Do I follow these rules? I try to. Do I fail? Sometimes.