Monday, November 10, 2008

Some Advice on Reviewing from John Leonard

I am not sure whether this is good or sad, but I seem to find out about a very large number of great writers—both critics and novelists—through the eulogies and encomia that appear at their death. Or if I knew of them previously, I come to a belated recognition of their talent and significance and am often impelled to seek out their work to read on my own. I probably would not have written my thesis on Saul Bellow, for instance, if he hadn't died in 2005, at the moment when I was casting about for a topic. I had read Henderson the Rain King and, I think, Seize the Day before his death, but it was the exuberant praise of Herzog and Augie that brought me to a deeper appreciation of his work.

I must confess to having been only peripherally aware of John Leonard: I know I have seen his name on the covers of any number of great and beautiful books. As A.O. Scott says in his luminous appreciation of Leonard in the NYT, "Like many other restless, bookish young souls, I read ravenously and indiscriminately, until over time patterns started to emerge, half-occult links between one volume and the next. The name John Leonard was one of these links. The works of fiction that seemed to contain the most galvanizing news of the world — the ones that disclosed entire undreamed-of universes within their pages — all seemed to bear this man’s endorsement on their front or back covers." I should also have made that half-occult link and followed up on Leonard's criticism at the very least, a deficiency I hope to correct soon, if by no other method than following the many helpful links his friends and admirers have set up to his work around the web.

Among these many links is this review, on Dale Peck's execrable collection of TNR columns (hat tip, Walton Muyumba). At the end of the review, Leonard offers a few "hard-won guidelines for responsible 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.
I'm not sure what all of these mean, to be honest (horsemen on the roof?), but I understand the sentiment, and it is a corrective one, a valuable one, and an honest one.

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