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The Lighter Side: The Unspoken Rules of Book Reviewing

The Unspoken Rules of Book Reviewing: A Guide for Beginners

Rule 1: Only review a book if you can be impartial about it—that is, only review a book toward which you feel nothing.  Be descriptive; avoid value judgments.

Rule 2: If you do have an opinion, don’t express it unless it’s positive.  Make sure to balance any negative observations (or even less-than-positive ones) with an equal number of positive observations.

Rule 3: If you do have a negative opinion of a book, make sure you express it only if the author is in no position to harm you in any way (that is, someone with no power in the poetry world).

Rule 4: Do not review anyone you know.

Now let’s talk about those rules.

Rule 1: This is an obvious fallacy. A review is an opinion, not an impartial rendition of the book’s contents (that would be a book report).  A review is nothing more than one person’s considered opinion of a book. Who supposes objectivity in an opinion? An opinion is, by definition, subjective.

Rule 2: This is cowardice, pure and simple.

Rule 3: This is either prudence or cowardice, according to your own standard of courage. Still if you have no courage, why are you trying to be a critic?

Rule 4:  The Po-Biz is a very small community. After a few years of being a poet, you’ll probably know everyone—so there’s no point in upsetting a future friend by reviewing books of poetry, ever.

These are the unspoken rules. The cumulative effect of these rules is that most living poets of any stature in this country simply decline to comment on, or criticize, other poets and their poetry.  In the Po-Biz, this is called “the Great Refusal.”