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Hail the hatchet man?
This week at Slate, Robert Pinsky describes the review that supposedly killed John Keats. We’ve heard this one before, but oh, it’s worth revisiting, particularly when Pinsky shares some of the most lethal lines. Here’s John Wilson Croker on Endymion:
Reviewers have been sometimes accused of not reading the works which they affected to criticise. On the present occasion we shall anticipate the author’s complaint, and honestly confess that we have not read his work. Not that we have been wanting in our duty – far from it – indeed, we have made efforts almost as superhuman as the story itself appears to be, to get through it; but with the fullest stretch of our perseverance, we are forced to confess that we have not been able to struggle beyond the first of the four books of which this Poetic Romance consists. We should extremely lament this want of energy, or whatever it may be, on our parts, were it not for one consolation – namely, that we are no better acquainted with the meaning of the book through which we have so painfully toiled, than we are with that of the three which we have not looked into.
Don’t we hate John Wilson Croker? Don’t we? Of course we do! Do you even need to ask? Of course you do! Because we secretly love him, too. Why, if we possessed one third of his daring and devilry, we’d…. But enough about us.
Pinsky proceeds into more personal terrain, describing his own background as a writer of short book reviews. One of the newspapers he wrote for provided him with some rules for criticism:
1. The review must tell what the book is about.
2. The review must tell what the book’s author says about that thing the book is about.
3. The review must tell what the reviewer thinks about what the book’s author says about that thing the book is about.
Pinsky goes on:
Applying the three-part standard to every book review I read, I find that many—or most?—fill only one or two of the requirements. Sometimes a reviewer dutifully paraphrases a book, fulfilling Rule One with a stab at Two, but seems too shy or fearful for Three. Another kind of writer, eager to show off, proceeds directly to Rule Three with a perfunctory glance at One and nothing about Two. Only a few reviewers do their work well enough to provide all three kinds of information, and a certain number—disciples of John Wilson Croker—avoid all three.
Okay, Pinsky. You nearly won us over to Croker’s side, only to persuasively warn us away. We hardly know what to do—our heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains our sense….