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Dylan O'Sullivan
31 Oct 2022

How to Review a Book Without Reading It

When it comes to modern literary criticism, bad practice is best practice.

How to Review a Book Without Reading It

“Thank you for sending me a copy of your book. I’ll waste no time reading it.”  –Moses Hadas

There are too many books, written by too many writers, for too few readers, with too little time. One can’t hope to read even a fraction of new releases these days, let alone review them. In his  essay “The Future of Reading,” Jacques Barzun relays the rather dire prognoses of Lewis Lapham, then editor of Harper’s Magazine: “Of the thousands of books published every year, almost all of them (possibly as many as 95 in every 100) constitute little more than puffed up essays or articles. The author could have said what he had to say in 40 pages instead of 400.”

That was in 1978. 

Nowadays, the critic’s desk has become a workplace hazard; the stack of novels, a kind of sick pun. Much like the Red Queen, who must sprint to merely remain where she stands, the occupational capacity of the critic has degenerated to that of a glorified lollipop lady: giving some books the green light, some books the red light, and most books no light at all.

And for what? To whom do critics owe these painstaking critiques, anyway? The writers? 

Hardly. 

“There is nothing less apt to touch a work of art than critical words,” wrote the (critically acclaimed) poet Rainer Maria Rilke – probably off the back of an all-too-honest review. A hundred years earlier, Goethe was waxing with the same wax: “Art is the conveyor of the inexpressible, it there-fore looks like folly again to attempt conveying it by words.”

The readers, though, surely? Surely not. 

Critics may read little, but rest assured, readers read less. That people who buy books read books is one of the greatest stories the industry has ever told. In 2009, Sky Arts conducted a poll to find out how many “readers” were in fact “liars.” The results were (to the dewy-eyed) shocking. Of those who went about their day-to-day claiming to have read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, almost half never even opened the book. Dystopia indeed. 

Readers of today flick through the literary section as they would an IKEA catalogue, looking for a nice coffee-table centrepiece, something to make an empty shelf a bookshelf. “From bestselling author [insert double-barrelled name here].” A word of paradoxical popularity, the bestseller is bordering on cliché. But what is a bestseller, exactly? Often, not much. 

According to Barzun, a literary truther, a bestseller is simply a book that many have bought, and few have read. “They may have tried to read it, they may have bought it for show. In either case they bought a brick, not a book.” Author and title, maybe a nice font. That is what separates the phenom from the flop. Style, theme, technique? Dodos. Their symbolic charm has migrated from the middle pages to the outer spine – a shift that has reduced libraries to little more than what Barzun describes as “interchangeable lumps of matter of a certain size and color.”

Books are now symbolic in and of themselves: upmarket wallpaper, literary plastic fruit, planted evidence of virtue and vogue.

In this day and age, reading so that one can write (as well as writing so as to be read) is like stenographing with a broken pencil: pointless. So on that note, with the whats and the whys accounted for, time to get to the how. Here they are: four rules, four tricks of the trade, to make the life of a twenty-first-century critic worth living.

1. Assume Ignorance

Even amongst those few readers who do read, most do not read well. In How to Read a Book, Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren identify two species of ignoramus: “The first is the ignorance of those who, not knowing their ABC’s, cannot read at all. The second is the ignorance of those who have misread many books. They are, as Alexander Pope rightly calls them, bookful blockheads, ignorantly read.”

For critical purposes, either philistine will do. As long as the illiterati hold their majority, critics can rest assured that any mistake or misreading on their part will be eclipsed by those of the reading public, many times over.

2. Assign Intention

In their 1946 essay “The Intentional Fallacy,” W. K. Wimsatt, Jr. and M. C. Beardsley lay out their famous dictum that “the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art.” What a pair of oxymorons. It is precisely because of its unavailability that intent is such a desirable standard. Disprovable negatives, known unknowables: these are mainstays of the time-poor critic.

In 1934, Ezra Pound wrote that “a good deal of BAD criticism has been written by men who assume that an author is trying to do what he is NOT trying to do.” A century on, however, BAD practice has become BEST practice. There are far more ways for authorial intention to fail than succeed. It makes sense, therefore, from a purely probabilistic standpoint – having not read the book, of course – for critics to err on the side of failure.

3. Attach Ideology

Write what you know. Is this not the mantra? And what do you know better than YOU? “As a practical matter when we refer to a book, Moby Dick, or a piece of music, The Moonlight Sonata, we often mean both the written text and the (idealized?) response to it.” Well, so says William Benzon – a critic with a lot of time on his hands, apparently. 

Critics with a little less time for playing semantics, however, should choose one and choose the latter. Playing angel’s advocate, Northrop Frye calls the critic “a spokesman for a community of readers” who “fails if he replaces the poem with himself.” If Frye is right, critics would do well to be wrong.

4. Attack Identity

“It is tremendously important that great poetry be written,” wrote Pound, again showing his age; “it makes no jot of difference who writes it.” In Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker runs through the various experiments showing that critics who roast books are perceived as more competent than critics who lavish praise. “Poetry” may have no I, but “criticize” has three. 

Savvy critics are careful never to judge books by their covers, not because they have read them, but because they are very careful never to judge books. “You can spot the bad critic when he starts by discussing the poet and not the poem.” Strike three for Ezra. Judging people is the aim of the game. Who writes ‘em and who likes ‘em. Ad hominem, ad nauseum. Clear and simple.

So, critics, relax. The industrial machine is chugging along nicely. Writers pretend that readers read the books they buy; critics pretend to read the books they review, readers pretend to read our reviews and the books themselves, ad infinitum. No one has done the reading. Nor will they. Nor must you. Let’s not waste any midnight oil. 

Instead, heed the words of Moses Hadas and the wisdom of James Agee, a critic who famously disregarded a gang of popular plays as so bad that he had not bothered to see them.

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