Kent Johnson’s call for “negative” reviews led me to this modest proposal:
1. The reviewer cannot be a friend, teacher, student, pet-sitter, neighbor, relative, former lover, or partner of the author of the book reviewed. A simple contract could easily stipulate this.
2. If someone close to the author is the reviewer (to offer some unique insight no other reviewer on the planet could provide), then this relationship must be disclosed in the review.
3. A book review cannot simply summarize the book. A short summary (perhaps no more than one half of the review) is helpful, but the rest of the review should be a critical examination of the work.
4. The reviewer should know something about the field, and, if there are any, the author’s previous book or books.
5. Reviews that praise a book to the heavens or damn a book to the underworld should be regarded with skepticism. In either case, other factors could be involved—such as the I’ll-scratch-your-back-if-you-scratch-mine literary politics. A critical book review would rarely offer either unmitigated praise or damnation; instead it would point out both strengths and weaknesses of the work, with ample evidence.
6. When a reviewer does find that unbelievably good or bad book, there will be a context, a history of critical reviews, and while readers may disagree with the reviewer, the reviewer’s record and aesthetic would bring credibility.
7. To ensure integrity, the reviewer should be identified. An unsigned review offers no real guarantee to the audience that the reviewer has no conflict of interest.
8. Book reviewers should be paid (cash preferable), if the essayists, poets, fiction writers in the journal are paid by the publisher. Granted a book review is different from other literary genres, but it is nonetheless (if done well) a rigorous and creative work.
9. Timeliness of a review (how soon it appears after the book was published) is not a major factor. A good review might revisit an earlier work of an author in light of later works, or review a neglected book, one that should have been reviewed but was overlooked, or it might revisit a much-praised book to see if it still merits the applause. An insightful review would still be worth reading, even if the book had been out for six months or a year.
10. A publisher must ask the reviewer for permission to use a portion of a review as a blurb for the work reviewed. Some reviewers may object to being seen as a “blurber,” and the reviewer should be the one to decide this.
11. There should be recognition of the year’s best book reviews, just as outstanding essays, fiction, poetry, and drama are so noted.
12. No reviewer, publisher, award committee, former lover, or python trainer can hold this modest manifesto against those who abide by it.
13. The book review is dead. Long live the book review!
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