By February 1, 2012 1 Comments Read More →

Ten Commandments of Book Reviewing and a Guide to Hatchet Jobs

As a book reviewer—not, I hasten to point out, a book critic—I always enjoy seeing other reviewers’ rules or guidelines for doing the job. Last year, Robert Pinsky did an admirable job of reducing the rules to three; I added one of my own but, in retrospect, I might amend it.

I recently received a press release for Mayra Calvani and Anne K. Edwards’ The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing, which they’re promoting by sharing their “Ten Commandments of Book Reviewing.” I won’t review the book, as reviews of a book about book reviewing seem likely to create a dangerous feedback loop that I, for one, am not brave enough to risk entering. I’m not blown away by their credentials but that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t have good thoughts on the subject. I’m sharing the commandments below; for the explanations, you’ll have to follow the link above.

This is a reasonable set of guidelines, although I might disagree with #3. Even though I’m an author as well as a book reviewer, I just don’t think you should write with the author in mind—you’re writing for the reader, and the author be damned. (Though it goes without saying that you should avoid ad hominem attacks.) And I’d also disagree with their contention in #5 that revealing spoilers might result in a lawsuit. You’ll make a lot of people angry, but getting sued strikes me as extremely unlikely.

1. Thou shall have no other gods before the reader.
2. Thou shall not lie.
3. Thou shall try not to offend the author.
4. Thou shall not eat the evaluation.
5. Thou shall not reveal spoilers.
6. Thou shall honor grammar, syntax, and punctuation.
7. Thou shall honor deadlines.
8. Thou shall not be prejudiced against thy neighbor.
9. Thou shall not become an RC addict.
10. Thou shalt honor thy commitment.

If these commandments strike you as too earnest and sincere, perhaps you’d prefer Wilfrid Sheed’s “Guide to Hatchet Jobs,” written all the way back in 1964. These were recently brought to light by John Williams at the NYT Arts Beat in his coverage of the Hatchet Job of the Year Award. As above, you should follow the link to get the full arguments, which are brilliant: “A good hatchet job leaves its subject looking stunted, emotionally malformed, altogether pathetic—and yet overweening and pretentious too, so that even sympathy is denied him.” But, in brief:

1) Hatchet jobs should never run an inch longer than the victim merits.
2) The complete opposite of Rule 1. It is a mistake to depend too much on short aphoristic dismissals unless your taste in them is absolutely infallible.
3) Almost any quoted matter, encapsulated in sneers will do—provided you deploy it with a little caution.
4) On the other hand, two or three short quotes, however well chosen, are barely enough.
5) Don’t over-reach yourself. Readers will swallow almost anything in the way of exposé, but there are limits.
6) There is such a thing as being too cruel.

What do you think? As always I love to hear your own rules and amendments.

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About the Author:

Keir Graff is the editor of Booklist Online and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix.

1 Comment on "Ten Commandments of Book Reviewing and a Guide to Hatchet Jobs"

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  1. bill ott says:

    My number one rule for book reviewing has always been this: pay attention to what kind of dish you’ve been served; don’t criticize the chicken salad for not being coq au vin. Although a different subject altogether, my number one rule for a book-review-magazine editor is this: Never Put Hitler on the Cover.

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