The Lighter Side: The Unspoken Rules of Book Reviewing II

In considering “the unspoken rules of book reviewing,” the editors came across David Wheatley’s superb essay on poet-critics (originally published in CPR a number of years ago) and decided to reprint a section of it (modified only by numbered bullets for emphasis). Here is the view “from across the pond” as it were.

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Since I’ve got to talking about my working methods, let me end with some practical poet-critical (poetic-critical?) suggestions of my own.

1) Don’t return to the scene of the crime without good reason if you’ve already trashed someone once. It makes you look petty. Larkin’s two jobs on Auden in Required Writing and Further Requirements bury the poet only to dig up him up again for further abuse, though some latitude must be allowed in cases of love affairs gone sour (remember Hazlitt on Coleridge).

2) Don’t just pick on easy targets. Jarrell, for all his reputation as a bruiser, throws many of his heaviest punches at bantamweights, the great exception being his own contribution to the “god that failed” file on Auden. Be robust even with, especially with, those you love: to Hofmann, early Frank O’Hara is “practically unreadable . . . nowadays you need a machete to read it.” And this is someone who loves O’Hara.

3) Don’t set yourself up as High Culture’s last line of defense, like Elias Canetti, George Steiner, or Harold Bloom. It’s pompous: you don’t want to sound like Tubbs from The League of Gentlemen shouting “Don’t touch the things!” whenever someone tries a Marxist or post-colonial reading of the “precious things” of the culture shop. Show us how broad-minded you are: if you’re a Marxist, quote Matthew Arnold approvingly now and then, and if you’re an Arnoldian, throw in a bit of Brecht or Lukács every so often. It all helps to keep the reader guessing.

4) Avoid obviousness. Hate sects and sectaries: find one of the worst issues of Scrutiny and remind yourself what it’s like when criticism turns into a flea circus on the top dog’s back. Don’t review writers by the number of prizes they’ve won, what university they went to, or where they’ve been published—it makes your subtext stick out like a shirttail you’ve forgotten to tuck inside your pants. And don’t unload your Arts Council/literary Dublin/London conspiracy theories on us. They may well be true, but face it: you are a crank, your bleats of “poor me” clearly audible over the grinding of your teeth.

5) Know how to turn a phrase and drop an anecdote. Take lessons in it from Hofmann: Under the Volcano “eats light like a black hole,” Bertolt Brecht arrived “fully formed from an unholy union between Kipling and Rimbaud, with Villon standing at the crib,” and Joseph Brodsky was born in the now-vanished city of “Theningrad.” Georg Trakl, melancholy man, “once threatened to kill himself unless he were given credit by a sweet-shop owner.”

6) Remember Nabokov’s butterflies, Larkin’s jazz, Benjamin’s postcards: have a side interest to keep you fresh for the other thing. Know when to let go.

7) If you do get the call to collect your journalistic scribbles (and how few are called, never mind chosen), make the waste-paper basket the volume’s midwife. 600-word pieces for the papers are reviews, but only rarely criticism too. Hofmann pulls off a notable stunt in Behind the Lines: the acknowledgements don’t say so, but a few of the very short pieces in the book began life in the schmoozy surroundings of “Books of the Year” roundups. Rather him than me. Know when to let yourself be carried away. “It is fascinating, at once slow and witty!” Hofmann tells us of Frederick Seidel, the exclamation mark fascinating: at once unexpected and fully earned!

8) Know how to quote. “Quotation is armor and ambiguity and irony all at once—turtles are great quoters,” Jarrell said. And like turtles’ shells, quotations give good protective covering too. Always ask for a proof.

9) Look after “the inessentials that are everything” (Hofmann again) since, as Con Houlihan said, “a man capable of misplacing an apostrophe is capable of anything.” An unknown sub-editor amends O’Driscoll on Larkin the “anthologist” to Larkin the “anthropologist.” “By their misprints shall ye know them,” said Karl Kraus (subject of a fine essay by Enright in Signs & Wonders), and how right he was. No one who has published any journalism can be without a mental store of typographical chips on his shoulder, all of them splinters of the true cross. Is there still time for me to correct my translation of the Irish teach an phobail as “pub” rather than “church,” my attribution of a play called The Black Tower to Louis MacNeice (the play being The Dark Tower, and Black Tower a cheap German wine), my quoting the last words of Larkin’s “The Card-Players” as “the secret, bestial place” rather than “the secret, bestial peace”? No there isn’t. Terry Eagleton uncharitably described his Cambridge tutor as someone who, presented with a text containing the secret of the universe, “would have noticed only a misplaced semi-colon.” To someone correcting a proof the secret of the universe can wait: that misplaced semi-colon really is more urgent. And about your own work: do not have opinions about it and never write about it, not unless you can be as brilliantly dismissive as Gottfried Benn:

So now these collected works are published, one volume, two hundred pages, how paltry, one would have to be ashamed of it if one were still alive. I would be amazed if anyone were to read it; I feel quite remote from them, I throw them over my shoulder like Deucalion and his stones; maybe their distortions will turn into human beings, but whatever happens, I don’t care for them.

10) What else? In his obituary for Ian Hamilton, Karl Miller remembers a young ingénu declining a drink in the Pillars of Hercules on the grounds that he didn’t “like” booze. “None of us likes it,” Hamilton snapped back. “None of us likes it”: it could be any poet-critic’s motto, reminding him or her that there are always other more important things to be doing than all this tittle-tattle. Sitting down and writing some poems, for instance.

About David Wheatley

David Wheatley studied at Trinity College, Dublin, where he wrote a doctoral thesis on the poetry of Samuel Beckett. He won the Friends Provident (Irish) National Poetry Competition in 1994 and was awarded the Rooney Prize for Literature for his first poetry collection, Thirst (Gallery Press, 1997). He was Writer in Residence for County Wicklow in 1998, editing two anthologies, Stream and Gliding Sun: A Wicklow Anthology and I am the Crocus: Poems by Children from County Wicklow. He recently edited an edition of the Poems of James Clarence Mangan for Gallery Press. He writes regularly for various papers and magazines, including The Irish Times, Poetry Review, Thumbscrew and Verse, and co-edits Metre with Justin Quinn.
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  1. Since it isn’t the complete essay, maybe you identified “Hofmann” by full name earlier, but I’m not sure who he is. Full name, please, so I can look him up? Thanks.

  2. Reagan, that’s the contemporary poet and critic Michael Hofmann. His book of selected criticism, ‘Behind the Lines’, is well worth reading.

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