Earl Gray

Earl Gray
"You can argue with me but, in the end, you'll have to face that fact that you're arguing with a squirrel." - Earl Gray

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Ten Traps for Reviewers

"His arguments are as thin as the soup made
from the shadow of a pigeon that starved to death."

 - Abraham Lincoln on the debating ability of Stephen A. Douglas.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #83
     Suppose you are about to write a review of a contemporary poetry collection.  I won't ask why;  I'll just hope it's not because you know and either like or dislike the author personally.  Your first challenge is to understand that this is a conversation between readers, past and prospective.  The author's feelings or reactions play no role here.  Your other challenge is to demonstrate why anyone should Give A Shit ("GAS").   Bearing in mind that, good or bad, very few will read the underlying work anyway, your recommendation will need to "create its own raison d'être" (whatever that means). 

     Oh, and some deft humor shouldn't hurt the cause.

     Listed from the merely annoying to the intolerable, here are the ten most egregious and common strategic mistakes perpetrated by reviewers:

10. Scholarship

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #49
    Your job as a reviewer is not to argue about the collection's place in the canon;  it's at least a half century too early for that.  Unless you are trying to make the case that the author has never had an original thought in his or her life there is no need to chart the work's family tree, tracing influences through the ages.  Also, think poems, not poets.  Unless it is part of a series, you don't need to place this compendium in the context of the author's other works.  No one GAS.  Just show us if this book is any bloody good.

9. Namedropping

     There is never any need to spell out a dozen other poets who write as well or as badly as this one.  No one GAS.  Just show us if this book is any bloody good.

8. Critique

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #73
     The damned thing is published.  It's too late for constructive critique.  Talk about the flaws without wasting time trying to repair them.  You say it might help with the author's next book?  In light of all the deficiencies you noted in this one, why would anyone, including the author, care about their next one?  Seriously.  No one GAS.  Just show us if this book is any bloody good. 

7. Book Reporting

     A plot outline is not a review.  Even if I love murder mysteries I don't want to waste time reading a godawful one.  If the collection has an overall theme describe it briefly and move on to the task at hand.  Books about one topic aren't inherently better or worse than those on other subjects.  No one GAS.  Just show us if this book is any bloody good. 

6. Content Regency

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #53
     If you haven't studied the elements of the craft please consider doing so before you write reviews.  Don't try to impress us with how profound [your peculiar interpretation of] the message is.  Life is short.  If the collection needs your expertise as an interpreter just say it's cryptocrap and move on.  Otherwise, concentrate on telling us whether or not these magnificent thoughts are expressed in a memorable fashion.  Of course, this is just another way of saying:  "No one GAS.  Just show us if this book is any bloody good." 

5. Bios

     Unless you are being held hostage by corporate terrorists and are trying to pass along the message that this book is the usual Autobiography of a Nobody, do not tap out the quotidian minutiae of the author's misspent or underlived life.  Save that for the Nobel Committee.  We don't GAS about who made the last film, TV sitcom or pizza we enjoyed.  Why would we care about who wrote a poetry collection--especially one you might be warning us to avoid?  Seriously.  No one GAS.  Just show us if this book is any bloody good.

4. Pontificating

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #32
     A reviewer's job involves divining, not defining, the reader's preferences.  Ergo, a review is not a treatise on aesthetics.  Again, the only issue is what readers like, not what you think they should like.  Spare us your sermons about how your readers' lack of taste will bring about the end of civilization.  No one GAS.  Just show us if this book is any bloody good. 

3. Documentation

     Stop restating your overall evaluation and give us supporting examples.  Ideally, these will speak for themselves, obviating the need for your evaluation entirely.  Show, don't tell.  There is no need to get bogged down in polemics.  No one GAS.  Just show us if this book is any bloody good.

2. Lawyering

    You are not an attorney making a case against opposing counsel.  You are a friend of the court, advising on the merits of what is being presented.  Do not showcase the worst poem to argue that the tome is wretched, or the best poem to imply that it is the second coming of "Grasshopper".  You needn't ignore these outliers entirely but do concentrate on representative samples.  Lots of 'em.  In the meantime, stop trying to score intellectual Brownie points with the jurors.  No one GAS.  Just show us if this book is any bloody good.

1. Blurbing

    Others brush off blurbers like the gadflies they may be.  Not this squirrel.  I rate blurbers half a notch above plagiarists, but only when I'm in a generous mood.  Smarm is dishonest, cowardly, and cloying.  It is a betrayal of precious readership trust.  It is like antimatter to the reviewing process.  Sifting through such unadulterated spam is one reason why no one GAS.

    Just show us if this book is any bloody good.

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Earl Gray, Esquirrel


  1. Earl, this has got to be one of your best posts to date! Loved it!

    1. Thanks for commenting, Frapper. I'm glad you liked it.


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