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Jul 18, 2004 1:57 pm

More on Reviewing ...

My colleague, Jonathan Dresner, launched a long discussion this past week at Cliopatria with a simple question: How long does it take you to write a book review? The discussion reminded me of my own reviewing of books and how topsy-turvy that part, like the rest, of my career has been.

How many historians have written a positive review of a book, only to be chased through two subsequent issues of the journal with accusations that he hadn't sufficiently damned the book in question? I had tweaked the ire of a couple of men who were known as"the three stooges" of King-assassination conspiracy theory to a Pulitzer Prize winning biographer of Dr. King. One of them said that my letter defending the review was"the most atrocious, false, irresponsible, libelous letter I have ever read in a journal of history." (Both links are subscriber only, but scroll down for a taste of the review and subsequent exchanges.) I had to know that what I was writing was accurate because they accused me of libel and one of my accusers was an attorney. They haven't sued me yet.

TNR's Dale Peck has made quite a name for himself by writing take-no-quarters, slash-and-burn reviews of recent American fiction. Peck's style led to a classic denunciation by the Philadelphia Inquirer's Carlin Romano in a panel discussion at Chicago's BookExpo America in June."Peck treats the publication of a book he doesn't like as a crime," said Romano,"and I'm sorry, but books aren't crimes." I heard Peck whining on NPR this past week that the book business is a vindictive one, that he doesn't have a publisher for his next novel, and that he's reforming. In the meantime, however, his wreckage is now compiled in a new book, Hatchet Jobs: Writings on Contemporary Fiction.

John Leonard reviews Hatchet Jobs for the New York Times and is suitably critical of Peck's reviewing. Toward the end of the review, Leonard suggests some"hard won" guidelines for responsible book reviewing:

First, as in Hippocrates, do no harm. Second, never stoop to score a point or bite an ankle. Third, always understand that in this symbiosis, you are the parasite. Fourth, look with an open heart and mind at every different kind of book with every change of emotional weather because we are reading for our lives and that could be love gone out the window or a horseman on the roof. Fifth, use theory only as a periscope or a trampoline, never a panopticon, a crib sheet or a license to kill. Sixth, let a hundred Harolds Bloom.
John Leonard had fiction in mind when he laid out these guidelines, but they apply as well to non-fiction. Yes, I do think that one should slay a philistine if that's what it is, but attempting to make a name for one's self by slash-and-burn reviews betrays no love of good work.

Update: Derek Catsam recommends Daniel Mendelsohn in the NYRB on Peck.

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More Comments:

Manan Ahmed - 7/19/2004

I looked high and low and finally found this gem. Enjoy.

Derek Charles Catsam - 7/18/2004

The latest NYRB has a more expansive essay on Peck. Definitely worthh reading -- and it is online on the front page at .