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.”
You have got to be kidding me. I do not like the idea that poets cover their own rear ends by not weighing in on each other’s work. Even friends.
I have several reviews up on my blog of other poets’ books. I’m about to review a high profile critic’s novel and although I’m scared, I think I’ll do a good job and I will be honest. Note: Shivani has more friends than enemies. xxxj
As a reviewer who has written his share of negative reviews, I agree that puff pieces are worthless for everyone involved. The hardest reviews to write are the ones where you’ve been assigned a book whose quality might best be described as “professional.” The work is competent, but it just doesn’t excite you. It’s much easier to do raves and pans.
On the other hand, I always remember Auden’s comment that he reviewed only books that he really liked. Making snarky comments about a book can be amusing, he warned, but if you’re right that a book is no good, time will take care of the book, and if you’re wrong, you’ll look like a damned fool later.