No one dreams of being a book reviewer when he grows up. You might dream of writing poems or novels or essays or even, if you are perennially picked last for teams in gym class, literary criticism (“We don't want Robbins, you can have an extra player”; “We don't want him, either!”). These forms have their glamour, even if only the novelist is much prized by the united malls of America. But as Samuel Johnson almost said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote book reviews, except for money.” I have had the rare fortune to see my poetic aspirations realized and then some (though fame is a fickle food), but poetry don't pay the rent. Not that anyone's getting rich from writing about how unputdownable a thriller is.
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Most reviews are merely serviceable, because reviewing is a service industry. Readers want to know whether they should read a book or skip it. Some publications append letter grades to their book reviews, a development I view somewhat as William F. Buckley regarded the Second Vatican Council. Deadlines are deadly to the polish of prose. Daily or weekly reviewing requires that something be said about works of which often there is not much to be said beyond "Read something else." In her disembowelment of Pauline Kael, Renata Adler rightly noted:
The staff critic is … obliged, and paid, to do more than simply mark time between rich periods and occasional masterpieces. The simple truth — this is okay, this is not okay, this is vile, this resembles that, this is good indeed, this is unspeakable — is not a day's work for a thinking adult.
But not all of us can afford to constrain our days' work to our brief respites from island-hopping. I have written sentences in reviews that would make Rex Reed blush. David Shields recently asked:
How many more reviews do we need in which you do a bit of a trumpeting of the horn at the beginning to contextualize, then you do a little bit of a summary of the argument or the plot, then you do a little bit of praise, then you take away that praise briefly, then at the end you say, "It's not great, but it's pretty good"?
This, as the kids say. I'm as guilty as anybody. When you churn out and turn in copy every week, you'll sometimes find your scintillating-prose gizmo on the fritz.
But reviews can be thrilling. They can be great criticism. The finest reviews render their ostensible occasions secondary to themselves. Who now reads Thomas Blackwell's "Memoirs of the Court of Augustus"? But Samuel Johnson's review remains: "He has often words or phrases with which our language has hitherto had no knowledge"; "Sometimes the reader is suddenly ravished with a sonorous sentence, of which when the noise is past the meaning does not long remain."
Randall Jarrell's reviews are famous for being — well, for being the best book reviews ever written in English, I guess. Even people who don't read criticism know his line about Oscar Williams' verse: that it "gave the impression of having been written on a typewriter by a typewriter." If you review professionally but haven't read Jarrell's "Poetry and the Age," you are my enemy. I marked up my original copy so much that it fell apart. The margins of my present copy are forlorn, but I have many passages by heart. In Marianne Moore's poems:
(R)eligion and economics are ghosts. Clergymen are spare cultivated old men, friends of your father, living scrupulously off dwindling incomes, who on the lawn tell you occasionally, not without a dry and absent impressiveness, about unfrequented hallways of the Old Testament. Business, the West, furnish you with no more than an odd quotation about the paper of an encyclopedia, and in the colonies of the West there are neither workers nor hunger, only pandas. Society is the incredible monster you inhabit, like the whale in Lucian; for many years, long before your birth even, there has been nothing anyone could do — so while you wait under the shade of that great doom you do well and, whether any bless you or not, are blessed.
Only pandas! I could rhapsodize about this review in the cosmic-inane tones of a Deadhead who was at Watkins Glen in '73. ("And then that echo of Yeats at the end! I just, like, totally left my body. I had no body, brother.")
Jarrell's gift is a matter of never expressing conventionally what could be expressed with wild but elegant artistry. W.H. Auden, in "The Shield of Achilles," "lies in himself as if he were an unmade bed, and every line in his sleepy, placid face seems to be saying: But whoever makes beds?" Moore "has great limitations — her work is one long triumph of them." Of a justly forgotten poet, he says, "One imagines Mr. Devlin shaking hands with the first Roosevelt and murmuring, 'Bully!'"
Jarrell distrusted cliché as a hemophiliac distrusts cactus. This is a necessary aversion for great writing in general, but the review in particular is a dumping ground for canned prose whose only distinction from that of Amazon's "customer reviews" is that it has been copy edited (usually). This book is "a rollicking delight," that one is "cringe-inducing." (I'm looking at you, Michiko Kakutani.)
I return to certain passages in my favorite reviews — and not only book reviews — as if they were poems: Manny Farber describing John Wayne as "focusing only on a tiny present area, nibbling at it with engaging professionalism and a hipster sense of how to sit in a chair leaned against the wall"; Robert Christgau asking of Mary Chapin Carpenter, "Why do I believe this Nashville liberal showers three times a day and doesn't think sex is the right place to get your face wet?"
The critics I prize are handy with invective — damn braces, as Blake put it. I probably agree with The New Criterion's William Logan less than half the time, but his reviews are (ahem) must-reads. Here he is on Jorie Graham:
Too many poems come down to a state of dotty exultation: "say yes/ out loud — say am I a/ personal/ wholeness? a congerie of chemical elements?" A congerie of chemical elements! (That should be "congeries," but no matter — she also believes that hawks hunt by night.)
There's a tendency to moralize against "negative criticism" that's based on a misunderstanding of the critical enterprise. We're not here, we writers, to support one another indiscriminately and play nice. We should support good art and oppose bad art, and we should do both with brio and style — with gusto, which William Hazlitt defined as "power or passion defining any object."
Reviewing is rarely a physically dangerous business, although after receiving an acid bath from William Logan ("This is how Mr. Rogers would talk, if he were an ex-junkie"), the poet Franz Wright sent the critic a thank-you note that read, in part, "I do not wish to kill you or hurt you, and so I beg you to get away from me, without delay, if you realize we are in the same room somewhere." (Mr. Logan remains hale in wind and limb.) But it can lead to unpleasantness. In Poetry magazine some years ago, I coined a phrase, unprintable by this paper, to describe certain tendencies in Robert Hass' work. Outraged letters appeared for months afterward; a few poets refuse to speak to me to this day. Then there is the recent brouhaha concerning Rachel Shteir's takedown of Chicago in The New York Times. It elicited angry letters inviting Shteir to return to New York, but the whole thing strikes me as having less to do with reviewing than with the old rivalry between Chicago and New York, so I'll leave it there.
My poetic career — so far, anyway, knock wood — proves there is no karma in the reviewing world. My book received one mixed review, in Poetry, which irked me because it was shallow, and one negative review in a graduate student journal whose name escapes me, which irked me because it was illiterate. (Some of my positive notices irked me for the same reasons.) But rave after rave piled up — in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, in both The New York Times and The New York Times Book Review, as well as in unexpected places like Entertainment Weekly and The Weekly Standard. This is a deeply strange experience. After a while, so many critics were saying so many good things about me that I began to suspect they must be wrong. (This is not strictly true, but it provides a transition to the next paragraph.)
That's another thing about reviews: They get it wrong. Pauline Kael's film reviews in The New Yorker introduced me to the art of criticism. As a teenager, I swore by her judgment, dismissing movies I hadn't seen because she had dismissed them. Later I read that she rarely saw movies twice and never reconsidered her reviews. As a critical method, this strikes me as both insane and a little sad. Some of the great experiences of art involve falling out of love with a work, or discovering wonders you'd missed the first time around.
That's one reason the best reviews are more than capsule verdicts. When I think about Farber's review of "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," I don't even remember whether he "liked" it. I remember his description of "an Arizona town … where the cactus was planted last night." I remember that John Wayne "moves along at the pace of a tapeworm." I remember a chair leaned against the wall, and a man with the hipster sense of how to sit in it.
Michael Robbins is the author of "Alien vs. Predator." He will appear at Lit Fest.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun