The Art of the Book Review

The timeless wit of "Advice to a Young Reviewer"

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in Blog

When I was writing my first book, my editor advised me to put everything I wanted the review-reading public to know in the first and last chapters, because those are the only chapters that most reviewers read. In the years since then, I have discovered that indeed most of the quotes pulled by reviewers from my books have come from the first and last sections. In nonfiction books at least, reviewers tend to skim the middle section and read only the summaries of the argument at beginning and end.

But this is only one of many crimes against authors committed with impunity by many of their reviewers. Most elements of the art of the book review serve the purpose of making the reviewer look more intelligent or erudite than the author whose work is under review. There is The Omitted Subject: “For all its merits, this book about the South Pole suffers from the lack of any discussion of the North Pole.” And there is The Book the Author Should Have Written: “By focusing on the South Pole, the author misses the opportunity to discuss a far more important subject: the Equator.”

These and other tricks of the book reviewing trade are centuries old. The proof is Edward Copleston’s “Advice to a Young Reviewer, with a Specimen of the Art” (1807).

Edward Copleston (1776-1849), who served as Provost of Oriel College, Oxford and Bishop of Llandaff, deserves to be remembered for this satirical essay, published in 1807. Copleston begins “Advice to a Young Reviewer” in mock-heroic fashion:

You are now about to enter a profession which has the means of doing much good to society, and scarcely any temptation to do harm. You may encourage genius, you may chastise superficial arrogance, expose falsehood, correct error, and guide the taste and opinions of the age in no small degree by the books you praise and recommend.

Copleston follows this, however, with a summary of the purpose of book reviewing from the reviewer’s own point of view:

Now, as in the conduct of life nothing is more to be desired than some governing principle of action, to which all other principles and motives must be made subservient, so in the art of reviewing I would lay down as a fundamental position, which you must never lose sight of, and which must be the mainspring of all your criticisms — write what will sell.

Following this principle produces great advantages for book reviewers: “In particular, it will greatly lighten your labours to follow the public taste, instead of taking upon you to direct it.” The objective of pleasing rather than instructing readers “does not stand in need of painful research and preparation, and may be effected in general by a little vivacity of manner…”

Indeed, if the plan of your Review admits of selection, you had better not meddle with works of deep research and original speculation, such as have already attracted notice, and cannot be treated superficially without fear of being found out. The time required for making yourself thoroughly master of the subject is so great, that you may depend upon it they will never pay for the reviewing.

Then as now, part of the art of the reviewer involved convincing the reader that the reviewer knows more than the author. “Tables of contents and indexes are blessed helps in the hands of a Reviewer,” Copleston writes. So is a preface.

Here then is a fund of wealth for the Reviewer, lying upon the very surface; if he knows anything of his business, he will turn all these materials against the author, carefully suppressing the source of his information, and as if drawing from the stores of his own mind, long ago laid up for this very purpose. If the author’s references are correct, a great point is gained; for, by consulting a few passages of the original works, it will be easy to discuss the subject with the air of having a previous knowledge of the whole.

Another trick, according to “Advice to a Young Reviewer,” is to praise the opposite of what the author has done: “That is, when a work excels in one quality, you may blame it for not having the opposite….[W]hichever the author has preferred, it will be the signal for you to launch forth on the praises of its opposite, and continually to hold up that to your reader as the model of excellence in this species of writing.”

A shrewd reviewer prefers “the censure and not the praise of books,” for many reasons: “The chief are, that this part is both easier, and will sell better.” Rather than act as an impartial judge, the reviewer should emulate an attorney cross-examining a hostile witness: “He may comment, in a vein of agreeable irony, upon the profession, the manner of life, the look, dress, or even the name of the witness he is examining: when he has raised a contemptuous opinion of him in the minds of the court, he may proceed to draw answers from him capable of a ludicrous turn, and he may carve and garble these to his own liking.”

“Advice to a Young Reviewer” concludes with a “specimen of the art” in the form of an anonymous review of John Milton’s poem L’Allegro, the composition of which must have been fun for Copleston, who when he published the essay was Professor of Poetry at Oxford. After ridiculing passages from Milton’s poem, Copleston’s exemplary reviewer concludes:

Upon the whole, Mr. Milton seems to be possessed of some fancy and talent for rhyming; two most dangerous endowments, which often unfit men for acting a useful part in life, without qualifying them for that which is great and brilliant. If it be true, as we have heard, that he has declined advantageous prospects in business for the sake of indulging his poetical humour, we hope it is not yet too late to prevail upon him to retract his resolution. With the help of Cocker and common industry he may become a respectable scrivener; but it is not all the Zephyrs, and Auroras, and Corydons, and Thyrsises, aye, nor his junketing Queen Mab and drudging goblins, that will ever make him a poet.

“Advice to a Young Reviewer” holds up this dismissive review of Milton’s poem as a model to ambitious reviewers, because it “exhibits most of those qualities which disappointed authors are fond of railing at, under the names of flippancy, arrogance, conceit, misrepresentation, and malevolence; reproaches which you will only regard as so many acknowledgments of success in your undertaking, and infallible tests of an established fame and rapidly increasing circulation.”

Copleston’s wonderful satire has long been out of print, although on-demand facsimiles can be purchased. I found it in my brittle 1886 edition of Famous Pamphlets, edited by Henry Morley. An enterprising publisher should bring out a 21st-century edition of “Advice to a Young Reviewer.” It would deserve to be widely reviewed. •

Feature image courtesy  Lawrence OP via Flickr (Creative Commons).