On Apophatic Criticism

The Hatred of Poetry, by Ben Lerner, is an accessible introduction to a kind of literary criticism that beguiles and frightens me. I think of it as “apophatic” criticism: the literary analogue to apophatic theology. Apophatic criticism rejects facile approaches to literature, and locates its highest values in the failure of texts. But we’ll get there. First, The Hatred of Poetry.

This excellent, short book is — surprise! — about hating poetry. Paradoxically, Lerner is a good poet and a lover of poetry, who hates poetry: “I, too, dislike it and have largely organized my life around it and do not experience that as a contradiction because poetry and the hatred of poetry are inextricable”. His thesis? That hating actual poems is loving the idea of poetry. To hate existing poems, or the limits of actual poetry, is to love virtual poetry, the poetry that cannot exist but seems to linger as a dream behind actual poems. With admirable dialectical tenacity, Lerner ropes in every variety of poem-hating, theoretical, emotional, and practical, to support his thesis:

Great poets confront the limits of actual poems, tactically defeat or at least suspend that actuality, sometimes quit writing altogether, becoming celebrated for their silence; truly horrible poets unwittingly provide a glimmer of virtual possibility via the extremity of their failure; avant-garde poets hate poems for remaining poems instead of becoming bombs; and nostalgists hate poems for failing to do what they wrongly, vaguely claim poetry once did.

All these variants of the hatred of poetry are negative testimonies to the value of true Poetry. Given the impossibility of approaching Poetry in mere poems, “great poets as different as Keats and Dickinson express their contempt for merely actual poems by developing techniques for virtualizing their own compositions — by dissolving the actual poem into an image of the Poem literary form cannot achieve.” And great critics, we might add, express their commitment to Poetry by pointing out where merely actual poems fall short and highlighting the places where great poets virtualize their own compositions.

This is what I call the apophatic criticism of poetry. Whence the word “apophatic”?

Apophatic theology is a logical development of the idea of monotheism. Back when I was any sort of Christian, I became obsessed with it for this reason. If god is not a creature, a created thing, and is, in fact, the author of existence itself, then that presents a major problem for theology, the study of god, the attempt to describe god. There appear to be only two possibilities: analogical language, saying what god is “like,” or negation, saying what god is not. All the well-known language of worship and devotion in actual religious traditions is basically analogical, the attribution of creaturely qualitites to the uncreated solely as comparisons, not as real and therefore contradictory predication. But what kind of analogy makes any sense if there is no basis for comparison? If I say Donald Trump reminds me of a badger being eaten by a smaller, hairier badger, either I mean that they, such a badger and Donald Trump, share some feature, or else I’m talking nonsense. But in the case of an analogy between the uncreated and a creature, there is no possible feature they could share. So how is analogical language anything but the purest fabulism? The other way to talk about the uncreated is through negation. Saying what the uncreated is not involves no claim, explicit or implicit, about some shared ground between the created and the uncreated. Given the danger of misattribution involved in any analogy, perhaps the negative way of theology, apophatic theology, is the most accurate way to speak about the uncreated.

It should be obvious by now why I want to borrow the word “apophatic” for the kind of criticism exemplified by Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry.

Now this kind of criticism can seem very austere and limiting at first. How boring would it be if poetry critics did nothing but talk about the failure of poetry? Lerner leaves himself an out at the end of his book:

[P]oems can fulfill any number of ambitions other than the ones I’m describing. They can actually be funny, or lovely, or offer solace, or courage, or inspiration to certain audiences at certain times; they can play a role in constituting a community; and so on. The admitted weakness in the story I’m telling about Poetry is that it doesn’t have much to say about good poems in all their variety; it’s much better at dealing with great or horrible instances of the art. (And I didn’t pretend to know where the art beings or ends: Another essay might look at how hip-hop, or spoken word, or other creative linguistic practices take up or by-pass the contradictions I’ve been describing.) But the story is illuminating because it helps account for the persistent if mutable feeling that our moment’s poems are always already failing us — whether our moment is 380 B.C. or 731, or 1579, of 1819, or 2016.

Thus The Hatred of Poetry is an exploration, for Lerner, merely of one very important feature of the poetic experience. What would a more uncompromising apophatic criticism look like?

*

An uncompromising apophatic criticism would look like the writing of Steve Mitchelmore. He does something like what Lerner does with poetry, but he does it with literature in general, and he doesn’t, well, compromise on the validity of his method.

You may have heard of Mitchelmore from his blog This Space. Not so long ago, he made the excellent decision to turn a number of posts from that blog into a book, entitled This Space of Writing, published by Zero Press. When I found out about this book, I purchased it with glee.

I discovered Mitchelmore’s blog when I was a college student. Without going too deeply into it, I was a miserable person then: I was cooped up in a terrible university I had chosen for religious reasons, and those religious reasons were beginning to get complicated, to slip away, and I was waking up to the profound intellectual poverty of my surroundings. I felt alone in my enthusiasm for books and philosophy and history, despite a lively social life and intense involvement in all kinds of curricular and extracurricular activities. So I spent a lot of time holed up in quiet corners, desperately reading, or looking for real live intellectual models and virtual friends on the internet. I stumbled onto This Space and encountered a way of talking about books that seemed as far above me in intellectual seriousness as I felt I was above my fellow students. Mitchelmore clearly valued books more than anyone I’d ever met. But he had some secret technique or method of approach that guided everything he said while evading all my attempts to isolate it. He’d developed a kind of discourse that seemed to turn every story into a text about reading and writing itself.

Mitchelmore’s essays have none of the fat that characterizes commercial criticism or the different kind of fat that characterizes book blogging. He writes with an intensity of focus that either sucks you in or makes you scornful. Those seem to be the two responses his blog draws: and the critical response to his book has been no different.

In a blog post called “Mehr Nichts” (it’s also included in the book), he asks at the end: “What does it mean to acknowledge the limits of writing?” And it was only after I had read Mitchelmore for many months, as a teenager, that I realized this was the question, or the kind of question, guiding his work. He prefers fiction that raises the question; and he reads all fiction, the good and the bad, with the question in mind.

Before I clued into this apophatic method, I found Mitchelmore’s writing difficult for a very specific reason: it rebuffed my desire to imitate it. I was deeply impressed by his irascibility toward other reviewers and by the way he seemed to dive into a text, causing it to disappear by becoming more intensely itself. But when I tried to read that way myself, or to discriminate between the critics and novels who offered or allowed for that way of reading and those who didn’t, I continually arrived at the “wrong” conclusions. Like Churchill, who supposedly taught himself politics while he was stationed in India by reading volumes of the debates of parliament, determining his own views and reasons about each issue, and then measuring them against the reported outcome of the actual debates, I essentially taught myself to read like an apophatic critic (or tried to) by seeing what book Mitchelmore had written about, trying to read that book as I imagined he would, and then comparing my experience to what he wrote.

It sounds more slavish than it was. I’ll write more on some other occasion about Mitchelmore, his book, and what his blog meant to me in college, because he deserves the attention, and I owe it to the role he played in my self-education. His book also requires its own post because to really show what he’s up to would require zeroing in on how he talks about specific texts, and I can sense this post will already be rather long without a digression of that kind.

In fact, that is the very the feature of an apophatic criticism that most appeals to me: despite the way it might seem abstract or predictable from an outside description, in practice it is more deeply focused on the real (or virtual?) object in front of the critic than any other form of criticism.

*

I approach the question of criticism from a practical standpoint. It interests me as a writer of criticism who needs a method rather than as a scholar in pursuit of the most defensible theory. From that perspective, and ignoring all the subtle distinctions of scholars, I see basically five varieties of criticism.

(1) Consumer advice. It measures a book against what it imagines readers want, and passes judgment on whether you, the consumer, ought to buy it. Is it a beach read? An aspirational read? A good read to give someone for Christmas? (The language of “reads” rather than “books” is symptomatic of consumer advice criticism.)

(2) Reader response. This kind of criticism is essentially a self-report. I liked the book or I didn’t, and this is what I liked or didn’t like about it. Nothing wrong with reader response, but it’s fundamentally autobiography, and therefore inevitably about the reader more than the book. The vast majority of book blogging is reader response.

(3) Textual-rhetorical criticism. Here the reviewer attempts to determine what the author was trying to do, and judges whether they succeeded or not, based purely on an appraisal of the text. In the hands of a perceptive and knowledgeable critic, it can be quite illuminating. It’s where you turn when you’ve been puzzled by a book and want a hand thinking about it. It can also very easily shade over either into disagreeable arrogance, when the critic ventures ex cathedra mind-reading of an author, or else into boring apologetics, when the critic reads an author’s goals out of their text without separating vision from actuality.

(4) Contextual-rhetorical criticism. This kind of criticism also attempts to judge an author’s intended act of communication and whether they achieved it, but relies upon all kind of sources (textual or not) beyond the book. Much of what I write in my formal book reviews for places like Open Letters Monthly and The Los Angeles Review of Books could be classified this way. I tend to use biographical events, intellectual history, letters, genre considerations, and so forth, in my attempt to figure out what a given book is up to. I make no pretense of ginning up the author’s vision from the text alone. Some of my favorite critics, like Fredric Jameson and Walter Benjamin, practiced this variety of criticism. Obviously it lends itself to political and materialist interpretations, but don’t let my list of critics or my own example limit the range of the method. I’d say a blog like Wuthering Expectations is contextual-rhetorical criticism too, even though the context drawn upon is primarily literary history. Obviously I love this kind of criticism. It has one serious disadvantage, though: it melts the specificity of a text into its context. The book becomes a node whose meaning arises from a conjuncture of other things. Perhaps that’s fine and we should reject the consideration of uniquely “literary” dimension of experience. (I’m not accusing the critics I mentioned of harboring that opinion; I just think it’s a practical implication of only writing contextual-rhetorical criticism.)

(5) Apophatic criticism. I’ve already described it, but to recap: it’s a way of writing about literature that treats it as a commentary on itself, a seeking for its own limits. It searches for a specifically literary dimension of experience, and necessarily it excludes other concerns, including the rhetorical, because its interest is not in the text as an occasion for communication, but in textuality as such.

There is one other way of writing about books — which I call “book chat” — but it’s more of a style than a method, so I won’t include it among my unscientific numbered set. It’s a plummy, belletristic, gossipy way of writing. Though not a text, the extremely enjoyable podcast Backlisted is a great example of book chat. V.S. Pritchett’s reviews were often this way, too. It’s a fine way to write about books; but I’m not sure it’s properly a form of criticism at all. (Surely anything that aspires to be a form of “criticism” must involve measuring something against something.) Really what book chat resembles is fan-centered sports-writing, of the Bill Simmons variety, but without falling into mere reader response. Yes, fundamentally it’s the discourse of fans. Perhaps it bears the same relation to apophatic criticism that popular devotion bears to the apophatic theology in monotheistic religions.

*

An important stage in my journey to atheism and irreligion was the way station of apophatic theology. For me, deciding that the negative way of theology was the only logical and appropriate way to speak or think of the uncreated called much of the everyday business of religion into question: the side of religion involved in building a community and living a certain way seemed more and more earthly and political, while the side involving an attempt to contemplate god seemed disconnected from the earthly altogether. Ultimately the tension proved insupportable, and my religious life split and transformed into socialist politics on the one hand and philosophical and aesthetic speculation on the other. But my point here isn’t to narrate my autobiography, it’s to ask whether apophatic criticism doesn’t spell a danger to work as a critic similar to the danger apophatic theology poses to religion.

I think the escape hatch that Lerner gives himself, quoted above, is unrigorous. Having conclusively determined that actual poetry is always inadequate as Poetry, he nevertheless permits himself to discuss the actual value of “good” poetry. And I’m at a loss to understand what he means by “good poetry.” To be a good X is to possess in the highest degree the qualities that make an X an X; and that is precisely what he has decided poetry cannot do. He has argued that poems are endemically imperfect. So what he means is that poems can be good for things other than the poetic. This would be like saying a shiny spoon with a hole in it was a good spoon because you can use its shiny surface as a mirror: in fact, it’s not a good spoon, it’s a bad spoon and a good mirror.

A critic can certainly write actual criticism, valuable criticism, which asks what non-literary things literature is good for. The contextual-rhetorical criticism that I often practice, for example, can, I think, be pleasant to read, instructive, even edifying. But is it literary criticism? Shouldn’t literary criticism involve judgment as to a work’s success as literature? In that endeavor, I think, apophatic criticism has no peer. Which is why I value Steve Mitchelmore’s work so much.

My admiration presents me with a problem, though. Apophatic criticism is difficult to read, and it will never, I suspect, be particularly popular. So does that mean that the professional critic must fall short of properly literary criticism? “Success, in the sense defined by the reviewers,” writes Mitchelmore, “would be failure.”

*

My college fascination with Mitchelmore’s This Space ultimately lead me to his sources. To Maurice Blanchot and Gabriel Josipovici, among others. In the course of reading from and around Blanchot, I lucked onto the brilliant essay “A Phenomenology of Reading,” by Georges Poulet. It’s a bizarre text that begins as an exploration of the experience of reading, ultimately settling on a description of reading as a sort of possession of one’s faculties, and then takes a sharp turn into discussing the various types of literary critic, among whom he singles out several critics contemporary to him, including Maurice Blanchot, the ur-apophatic critic.

I’ll conclude by quoting without commentary a passage from Poulet which touches directly upon apophatic criticism:

[The critic] can make language a pure crystallizing agent, an absolute translucence, which, suffering no opacity to exist between subject and object, promotes the exercise of the cognitive power on the part of the subject, while at the same time accentuating in the object those characteristics which emphasize its infinite distance from the subject […] the maximum lucidity thereby achieved only confirms a separation instead of a union. […] I may […] separate myself so completely from what I am contemplating that the thought thus removed to a distance assumes the aspect of a being with whom I may never establish any relationship whatsoever. […] the act of reading has delivered me from egocentricity: another’s thought inhabits me or haunts me [but I] keep [my] distance and refuse to identify.


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A Glossary of Literary-Critical Cliches

The following glossary explains the true and secret functions and unintended revelations of certain common cliches used by book reviewers when they are describing books. It is lovingly compiled, since I am in fact a reviewer. I am no doubt guilty of most of these transgressions at one time or another. But it is seriously intended as a relevant tic-list. Every single one of these abominations could be avoided, and a hundred others besides, if we reviewers mustered the strength of purpose to avoid lazy evaluative abstractions. Also, I frequently get carried away in my analysis of unintended revelations, so don’t take anything too seriously.


Acclaimed
– apparent meaning: much praised.
– lazy function: to excuse the reviewer from finding any independent reasons why this author should be more important to you than an equivalent weight of white raisins.
– unintended revelation: The reviewer read a bunch of other reviews of the book first, to get some ideas for their own review, and discovered most of the others were positive; alternatively, the reviewer considers this author too popular to poke with a critical stick.

Characters Come To Life
– apparent meaning: you thought this book was fiction, but it’s actually a necromantic spell.
– lazy function: to imply that a book’s characters are more than under-written stereotypes, but without showing or explaining why this is the case.
– unintended revelation: The reviewer fell asleep while reading the book and dreamed they were being chased by one or more of the characters. And, a fortiori: this reviewer confuses their emotional reaction to a story with its more objective qualities.

Cookie-cutter
– apparent meaning: the characters / books / sentences of the author under review, like your mamma’s gingerbread men, have identical formal dimensions.
– lazy function: to imply that the book under review adhered to genre stereotypes or slavishly imitated another story, but without just showing that by examples.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer reads far too much of this genre / the reviewer has been required to read far too much of this author, and resents it.

Epic
– apparent meaning: this book belongs to the tradition inaugurated by Homer’s Iliad.
– lazy function: to indicate that the book is very long.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer did not finish reading this book.

Hack
– apparent meaning: a writer of copious, unoriginal, uninspiring, but adequate words.
– lazy function: to indicate dissatisfaction with an author’s approach to the book under review, without going to the trouble of establishing where the reviewer can even imagine having done better.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer respects the author’s character but considers them deficient in intellect, taste, or time; also, use of this word often connotes a wary respect based on self-recognition.

Haunting
– apparent meaning: a book that sticks with you in a rather distressing way, much like a ghost, even after its physical presence has gone away.
– lazy function: to imply that the reviewer (and you too, dear reader) is such a sensitive individual that strong aesthetic experiences painfully color their experience of everyday life.
– unintended revelation: The reviewer was overcome by a horrifying personal memory as they read, possibly as a result of the old guacamole they were eating to give them strength to finish, and they have actually already forgotten the book’s plot (but the after-effects of the guacamole continue, and they’re pretty sure they’re going to have nightmares tonight).

Inimitable
– apparent meaning: Impossible to imitate.
– lazy function: to indicate stylistic distinctiveness, deployed to avoid the hard work of showing and accurately describing what is distinctive about the style in question.
– unintended revelation: The writer under review has such recognizable patterns and mannerisms that they are precisely imitable. They are so imitable, in fact, that you would actually beclown yourself by imitating them. So the word reveals the opposite of what it means, confusing description and prescription.

Laconic
– apparent meaning: short.
– lazy function: to imply the reviewer appreciates (and perhaps aspires to) a certain elegant asceticism.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer was so grateful for how short the book was, he chose to overlook how much it failed to persuade / convince / entertain and instead praised it for its abortive qualities.

Lapidary
– apparent meaning: having the precision of an engraving or inscription on a monument.
– lazy function: impressive-sounding word for prose the reviewer more or less liked without being able to put a finger on why: a word the reader is likely to nod knowingly about without actually understanding.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer is a complete philistine when it comes to the plastic arts.

Lavish
– apparent meaning: to indicate that a book has nice paper, lots of pictures, a well-made binding, and good cover art.
– lazy function: to tactfully intimate this book is expensive as fuck.
– unintended revelation: The reviewer would never have got hold of this book but for the fact that review copies are free; moreover, he will soon make a killing by auctioning it off on Amazon; moreover, he is talking about what it looks like to avoid the fact that the book is uninteresting and pointless in every other way.

Magisterial
– apparent meaning: the author or book under review has great authority.
– lazy function: to imply that the reviewer has the erudition to distinguish truly original or comprehensively evenhanded scholarship on the book’s topic from all the other shit that’s written about it.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer was impressed by the sheer length of the book, the fact that it was written by somebody famous for being smart, or because he has apparently never read anything else on the subject.

Meticulous
– apparent meaning: extremely careful and detailed.
– lazy function: to weakly praise a thing the reviewer found incredibly boring, but nonetheless felt they ought to like, probably.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer only finished this book because they would have felt guilty otherwise, and they wish to delude themselves into believing that they actually enjoyed it, purely as a psychological defense against the recognition of the true abyss of the reading to $ ratio of their ill-advised career.

Nuanced
– apparent meaning: the author under review makes subtle distinctions.
– lazy function: to imply that the reviewer is not an ideological hack or fundamentalist of some stripe, but a sophisticated and cosmopolitan thinker, who recognizes the manifold considerations relevant to a contested issue.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer actually agrees with the author’s position on this issue, and suspects that people who don’t agree should be made to read it.

Pitch perfect
– apparent meaning: the author under review never uses the wrong word, and always conveys a scene in words appropriate to its significance or an argument in words appropriate to its gravity.
– lazy function: to imply that the reviewer is a genuine afficionado of prose style, whose discrimination rivals that of Nabokov.
– unintended revelation: (1) the reviewer agrees with the author’s position, (2) the reviewer probably knows the author or wants to be like them, (3) the reviewer sort of suspects their own prose sounds rather like this author’s.

Poignant
– apparent meaning: profoundly touching.
– lazy function: to express, tactfully, that a story was melodramatic (but the reviewer can’t say so or they’d be either traducing a famous name or trampling somebody’s personal story).
– unintended revelation: the reviewer, dead inside from so much reading, is actually unable to produce a tear unless they use a juicer on an onion and then pour the liquid into their eye with a funnel.

Reads like a novel
– apparent meaning: this book, while not a novel, is as much fun to read as a novel.
– lazy function: to imply that this book is really fun even though its topic sounds boring enough to kill a cow.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer is privately extremely interested in the topic of this book.

Resonant [also as a verb: “this book resonates”]
– apparent meaning: this book is about much more than at first appears.
– lazy function: to avoid the actual work of drawing connections between the book’s content and the things it reminded the reviewer of.
– unintended revelation: as the reviewer read this book, they were thinking about something else.

Seminal
– apparent meaning: very influential, much the way semen is influential in the conception of new humans.
– lazy function: to imply that the reviewer’s godlike view of the landscape of books allows him to make authoritative proclamations about the subterranean lava flows of literary influence.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer wishes more people would write books like this one, and is also unaware that, most likely, the thing he finds original and influential in the book had been done to death actual centuries before it was written; also, the reviewer is likely male.

“X by Y is, pardon the expression / as it were, [one of the other words in this glossary]”
– apparent meaning: Because I am aware that I am lazy, I am not, in fact, lazy.
– lazy function: to imply that the reviewer is generally speaking above reviewer cliches, but in this case has found a true instance of the original phenomenon for which the cliche was first invented and is therefore justified in resorting to it.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer is not only lazy, but also stupid enough to think that by parading their laziness they will convince you they are not lazy.

Sobering
– apparent meaning: that this book will make you more serious about life, or about some particular issue.
– lazy function: to imply that the reviewer is a serious person who gravely applauds the earnestness of others.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer thinks you, the reader, are probably too frivolous about this issue; also, the reviewer was likely drinking as he wrote this review.


To be updated (when I get the chance) with: elegant, luminous, lush, prescient, provocative, riveting, stunning, thrilling, transcendent, unflinching, love-child of author and author, and voice of a generation.

Feel free to contribute addenda in the comments, or to suggest other likely candidates for the glossary!

Notes on Book Reviewing

I’ve been a regular contributor and editor for the long-form book review journal Open Letters Monthly for two years now. [Editorial note: no longer an editor; gave all that up for writing more. But what I say in this essay still appears valid to me.] But I don’t claim any special authority on the subject of book reviews. If my time on that staff has taught me anything, it’s how many levels there are on the parnassus of criticism. I’m maybe on level two, which, hey, is above level one, but if I squint I can see reviewers on levels twelve and thirteen, so…

The fact remains that I have now written many more long-ish book reviews than the average person (34 at OLM, by my count), received and watched others receive the always sharp and wise advice of my fellow editors, and edited dozens of others’ reviews.

Lately, a number of friends have urged me to write down any advice I might have about writing book reviews professionally. Bearing in mind that I’m not a professional—I’ve never earned a red cent for a book review [editorial note, 2017: happily this is no longer true], and am not, as a consequence, a member of the National Book Critics Circle, though I rather expect to be someday—nonetheless I’m happy to offer what I have. What follows are my own provisional conclusions about book reviewing.

Learn to love summarizing.

There is only one non-negotiable element in a book review and that’s summary. Some of the most influential book reviews — the reviews that determine whether a bookseller will even carry a book or a library purchase it, often published in places like Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly and Booklist — are tiny, paragraph-long things which do the majority of their work through good summary. Long-form essay-reviews of the type published by Open Letters Monthly also need good summary: in fact, in their case, precisely because of their length, there is absolutely no excuse to leave a reader unsure what a book is about.

Unfortunately, to the beginning book reviewer summaries can carry the odor of schoolwork. They reminded me disagreeably of book reports at first, something I gladly left behind in grade school. But I learned to love them by embracing them as an opportunity for artistry. A sprightly and tight summary is a real feat both of prose and of thinking. You have to condense a few hundred pages into a few sentences, and you have to do it in an interesting way. Opposite dangers of boring but precise over-qualification and interesting but too-quick misrepresentation dog your steps.

I think that, other than the opening and closing of a book review, the summary section should probably receive the greatest care and the most revision. It’s worth getting right. And if you do it well, that’s the difference between a book review no one will read, and one in which they understand your subject and are willing to entertain your own precious thoughts that follow the summary.

Assorted keys to a good summary: (1) it should come as early as it can without ruining the lede (on which, see below); (2) it should definitely include sentences, if possible, about the experience and qualifications of the author, about the genre of the book, and about the book’s main thesis (if non-narrative) or situation (if narrative); (3) if possible it shouldn’t telegraph an evaluation.

Three is particularly important to me, though I know good book reviewers who do otherwise. I think—and this is a view plenty of you won’t share—that even a denunciation is better when the denounced thing is given a full and sympathetic hearing. Summary is where that hearing occurs. Hatchet job or puff job, in any review the point of a summary is a clear, concise statement of what kind of book is under discussion and what that book has to say. Feel free to eviscerate it only after you’ve clearly stated its contents; otherwise you’re fighting dirty.

Don’t just summarize.

Despite its importance, summarizing does not exhaust the functions of a book review. Too often, a new reviewer for Open Letters Monthly will send us a lovely long essay-review which amounts to nothing but summary. Academics are especially prone to this, trained as they are to produce scholarly works five parts summary to one part original idea.

What else is there to do in a book review besides summarize the book? Well, for starters: you could contextualize or explain the book’s content or form, relating it to other books; you could extrapolate from one of its themes, anecdotes, or theses to your own experiences and ideas; you could compare it to a similar book; and you could render a judgment on the quality of its prose, organization, validity, or truth.

The cool thing about book reviewing is that it doesn’t really matter what level of expertise you bring to a book, you can still write a good review. An expert can emphasize contextualization and explanation, a neophyte can emphasize extrapolation, and anybody can make a judgment.

That last comment deserves its own gloss, because I don’t mean the old-fashioned magisterial thumbs up-or-down of the newspaper book critic. More and more I find that kind of judgment and its presumption of impossible expertise repellant. Therefore, I suggest that you…

Avoid lazy evaluative abstractions.

Yes a book review has a normative function, and the people who write them are called critics for a reason. But it’s uninteresting to crustily brute about that this book is brilliant, that one abysmal, this one magisterial, that one better unwritten. These abstractions—of which the most inventive book reviewer runs out pretty quickly—are lazy. They are, in the lingo of philosophers, “thin” ascriptions of normativity, like saying somebody “did a bad thing” rather than that they “stole” or “murdered” or “insulted” etc. If you tell me someone “did a bad thing”, I’ll ask you, “what, exactly?” Same with book reviews.

Instead of thin, lazy evaluative abstractions, you should describe the particular kind of badness or goodness that you have discerned in a book. If you do it with enough precision, you can give weight to your flat abstractions or, better yet, dispense with them altogether.

This is why I said anybody can offer a useful judgment on a book. If James Wood said flatly, “this is a bad book,” it would mean no more to me, and be no more helpful, than if Joe Schmoe said, “this is a bad book.” Both of them would do better to describe the features of the book that seemed good or bad to them in detail, showing me with quotations and accurate summary, giving me reasons rather than bland conclusions.

Even if I disagree with a book reviewer, I respect their judgment if it takes the form of detailed evaluative description rather than a pronouncement I am supposed to accept on their bare authority. I can disagree with a detailed evaluative description in a particular way—perhaps you dislike the casual style of D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature, for example. I would disagree with you, but find your judgment interesting because it’s pinned to an identifiable feature of an actual book, whereas if you announce in stentorian tones, “D.H. Lawrence is a bad writer,” I not only disagree with you, but I’m going to despise the laziness of your evaluation.

Don’t be a tool.

Two traps that bedevil the critic: to accept a role merely as a cog in the economy of book selling, and to reject the role of a cog in the economy of book selling.

It can feel great to find your review excerpted on the praise-page of a book or on a publisher’s website. It might make you feel part of The Conversation. Don’t fool yourself. It’s empty — like getting excited a famous person responded to your tweet — proof only that you gave a thirsty publicist the sort of copy they needed to move books.

Look, I love me some publicists. They send me free books all the time! But we have different jobs and when my words and their desires converge, it should be a contingent by-product of my honest, accurate account of a book, not the result of a tacit conspiracy of mutual aggrandizement.

But it’s possible to be another kind of tool. To avoid even the implied judgment of precise, accurate description, and to leave your reader unsure whether you respected or despised a book. That, in my opinion, is also egregious. You’re a finite being whose limited perspective is always attended by feeling response to the things you concentrate upon. You thought the book was worth reading or not. Convey that information.

Get right to the point.

Now some more nuts-and-bolts suggestions. My first applies not just to book reviews but to literally any piece of writing, unless you have a very good reason to ignore it.

State your main idea early.

This implies two things: first, that you have a main idea, and second that you’re clear enough about it to state it succinctly.

I don’t think your main idea should be a simple thumbs up or down on the book (see the section on lazy evaluative abstractions above), but rather an evaluation-tinged observation about a feature of the book. For example, here are abstracted, one-sentence summaries of the main idea of several recent reviews I wrote:

(1) Existentialism is best told through the biographies of its main proponents, and Sarah Bakewell’s latest successfully does this.

(2) John Berger’s background as artist, novelist, and marxist make him a critic who appreciates and describes features of art works that others ignore.

(3) Friedrich Nietzsche’s lectures on education resonate with similar contemporary critiques, but should give us pause for that very reason.

That’s the sort of thing I (obviously) think a book review should be about: an observation not directly about the worth of the book, which nevertheless has consequences for the worth of the book.

Don’t neglect the lede

The lede is the hook, the opening paragraph or two (or three or four) from which you circle in to a summary of the book and a statement of your main idea. Its function is to be interesting. The stronger its connection to what follows the better, of course; but its main function, I repeat, is to be interesting. You can begin with summary, and if you’re an unusually interesting summarizer that can even be a good lede. You can begin, like a philosophical paper in an academic journal, with a bare statement of your thesis. And, again, if you have a surprising or unusually gripping thesis, that can work just fine.

But normally neither summary nor main point are going to be very hook-like. This is a book review you’re writing. A genre that proliferates like rabbits, a lowly mass-produced genre, and you’re likely competing with dozens of other reviews of the same book. Why should anyone take the time to read you?

Because you’re interesting. So be interesting, in sentence number one.

What’s interesting? Stories are interesting—I think a narrative opening is always the most gripping, and I’m not alone in that. Controversial or counter-intuitive assertions are interesting. Descriptions of inherently interesting things are interesting. But the common denominator in interesting ledes is—emotion.

I think if you want to be interesting you need to make a reader feel something. That can be curiosity, horror, delight, nostalgia, sorrow, amusement, whatever. But the more intense the feeling you inspire, the more interesting you are.

Conclude by returning to the point.

I’m not sure about this point. How to end book reviews still bedevils me as a technical problem. But the one fail-safe method that always seems to draw appreciative comments from other editors, and which I find myself admiring when I read other people’s book reviews, is an ending that alludes to the beginning.

But there are other ways to end. This is something I plan to study, and I’ll report back when I do. For now though, I can tell you this: circling back to the beginning is one safe way to go.

[Editorial note, 2017: I still think closing the circle is a good way to end a book review. There are others, equally effective. For instance, if the overall structure of your review is the form of a question, the end could be an answer. Another great thing to do is start to tell a really gripping story at the beginning of the review and finish it, or say something about its aftermath, at the end. The point is, like the lede, the kicker (writer-speak for ending) should generate some kind of interest in a reader by evoking an emotion in them.]

Have a structure.

You want neither to repeat yourself unduly, nor to write a collection of fragments masquerading as an essay. This piece of advice applies only to long-form reviews I think. A short, 500-word or fewer review kind of has a necessary form, just based on the inclusion of all a book review’s elements. But beyond that you have to make organizational decisions, and the thing will be more effective and memorable for readers if those decisions are logical.

Hide your structure.

Final piece of advice, related to the last one: rarely, but frequently enough to mention, we get writers who have so clearly organized their review that it feels like a paper. I mean it feels like an academic essay, where the goal is always very explicit organization.

I think one of the major differences between academic and literary writing is that literary writing attempts to disguise the bones of its organization. Mostly this involves two things: (1) literary writing dispenses with too-obvious sign-posting. None of this, “first I am going to… then I am going to… and finally I am going to.” (2) Literary writing takes care to make the transitions between paragraphs horizontal rather than vertical.

What do I mean by that last point? I mean that in literary writing, the first sentence of one paragraph follows from the last sentence of the previous paragraph, while in academic writing, it often follows a pre-stated schematic order. Academics think nothing of abruptly moving from one topic to another between paragraphs, so long as they have explicitly signaled that they will follow this progression. That’s fine, it fits their goals. But book reviewers are, for the most part, doing something more belletristic, and I think a certain organicism of prose follows that function. (The most magnificently organic paragraph writer, in my opinion, is William Gass, in his essays. Study A Temple of Texts.)

If you need examples of this difference, let me suggest looking back at this post. Between sections I am transitioning in a way that resembles what I am describing as academic paragraphing, and within sections I am transitioning in a way that resembles literary paragraphing.

(I’m over-generalizing about both academic and literary prose, obviously. But I think there’s something to my observation anyway.)

Go ye forth and review some books

That’s pretty much it. I hope that any pro (or good amateur) book reviewers will contribute their disagreements and additions in the comments, and I’ll take a stab at any questions.

Also, should you feel inspired by this post to write a book review, hit me up in my capacity as an editor of Open Letters Monthly—I’ll gladly talk to you about getting you a book (book reviewers get free books—did you know that?!) and working with you to publish your piece with us. [Editorial note: I’m not editing anymore. Turns out I like writing more, much more. But the Open Letters Monthly folks are still ready and eager to publish your longform book reviews. Hit them up. {Further editorial note: Alas, Open Letters Monthly is no longer publishing new material. But there are myriad other venues! Go ye forth and find them.}]