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Reviewmanship.

Book reviewing pays so little it is difficult to see why anyone does it. Unless you are one of a handful of full-time critics and literary editors with the dwindling number of publications that provide regular coverage of books, it is impossible to make a living at it. What is too rarely understood, however, is that book reviewing offers fring benefits that far outweight the monetary rewards. It should not be regarded as the Ding an sich but as a means to career advancement. That is where Reviewmanship comes in.

Wat is Reviewmanship? It is a body of techniques that enable one to mobilize the book review in the service of personal objectives. Practitioners of Reviewmanship recognize that the primary purpose of reviewing a book is to display one's talents, punish an enemy or achieve power.

An example will illustrate the rewards. Professor Y was spinning his wheels in the nontenure track at a large Midwestern university. While attending a Modern Language Association convention he learned that a plum associate professorship in his specialty (nine-teenth-century American literature) would open up soon at a top-flight Eastern university. Professor Y had amassed an impressive list of credits in a number of obscure scholarly journals, but he needed a public splash to bring him wider attention within the profession. What he needed, in short, was a Strategic Attack, or in Reviewmanship terms, a big fat book to bash.

He laid his plans carefully, first assiduously combing the lists of forth-coming books in Publishers Weekly. After a few months, his vigil was rewarded with a target: Prometheus Unbound: Melville, Hawthorne and Nine-teenth-Century Industrialism, by Professor Z, a well-known scholar. Having heard that the editor of a certain influential journal held strong neoconservative views, Y submitted a review in which Professor Z was portrayed as an exemplar of the antibusiness temper in academe (actually, Y was himself a lapsed 1960s radical who had written his doctoral thesis on Marxist criticism). The review fluttered the dovecotes of academe, thanks to a generous dissemination of tear sheets by Y, and stamped its author as an academic macher. After that, it was simply a matter of obtaining a glowing letter of recommendation from his head of department, whom Y had had the good fortune to catch in flagrante delicto with a young female student. Soon he was speeding along the tenure track at that leading Eastern university.

Professor Y's success shows what an adept Reviewman can achieve. He employed one of Reviewmanship's basic techniques--the Inwood-Hill Overwhelm, named after the late Desmond Inwood-Hill, D.Litt. Oxon., O.B.E., a Elsinore University who, in his heyday, when his anonymous reviews in The Times Literary Supplement terrorized the history profession, was known as "the Phantom of the T.L.S." Put most simply, the 1-H Overwhelm consists of an essay that, beyond a brief, condescending mention, completely ignores the book under consideration.

The beauty of the I-H Overwhelm is that it allows one to criticize a book about which one has nothing to say. In Professor Y's case, it would have been impossible to fault Professor Z's scholarship, so he used the book as a springboard for an attack on the allegedly radical views of English professors, while portraying himself as an embattled maverick, albeit one who was echoing the economic views of 90 percent of the people who endow university chairs. (The voice-in-the-wilderness ploy has, of course, been used quite effectively for years by such conservative publicists as George Gilder and Ben Wattenberg. Students of Reviewmanship are watching this related field closely to see what new techniques its leading figures will develop now that their ideas have been adopted at the highest levels of government, with dismaying results.)

An alternative to the I-H Overwhelm is the Gottschalk Pickoff, after Siegfried Gottschalk, 1832-1924, professor of logomachy at Niebelungen University in Cologne. Rather than drowning the book in irrelevancies, one seizes upon errors of fact and inflates them into major criticisms. The traditional reviewer, of course, cites the mistakes and moves on, muttering something about corrections in the next edition. The Reviewman, however, is playing an entirely different game. He knows that every work of nonfiction is bound to contain some errors, but to him they are the tiny grains in the oyster that produce pearls beyond price. It is his great gift to transmute minor slips into major lapses that undermine an entire work.

Had Professor Y adopted this strategy, he would have read Z's book with a gimlet eye. Professor Z was a formidable opponent, so let us assume that Y found only two mistakes in Prometheus Unbound: misnaming Nathaniel Hawthorne's sister and wrongly identifying the nature of the business pursued by Herman Melville's father. Quite trivial to be sure but in the hands of the consummate Reviewman, pure gold. Professor Y might have written, for example:

One's confidence in Professor Z's scholarship begins to erode, however, when he identifies Herman Melville's father, Pierre, as a wheat factor. Actually, the elder Melville dealt exclusively in rye. This may seem a minor matter, but it is not. Dealers in wheat would have looked optimistically westward to the moving frontier, where the land was best adapted for wheat growing, rather than to the dying farms of New England, where most of the rye was cultivated. Thus, Professor Z's entire analysis of Herman's unresolved Oedipus complex and revolt against his father must be declared suspect.

Then one notes with growing alarm that the author has misnamed Hawthorne's younger sister as Pearl. We must question Professor Z's entire argument that The Scarlet Letter is a premature feminist text exemplifying the darker incestuous longings embraced in the concept of "sisterhood."

By now the student of Reviewmanship has probably grasped its main elements. It remains only to acquaint him with some of the other stratagems, all battle-tested in bygone literary wars.

[Section] The Van Camp Crib. Named for Stokely Van Camp, a Manhattan-based freelance writer who flourished in the 1950s before retiring to a sinecure with the Jay Gould Foundation, this gambit enables a generalist to comment intelligently on subjects he knows nothing about. Assigned a lengthy study of the Administration of James K. Polk, Van Camp immediately perceived that he was out of his depth. Recognizing that his problem called for desperate measures, he read the entire book. He then wrote an erudite essay on Polk and his times using information drawn entirely from the book but presented as his own. Naturally, he took pains to sprinkle the notice with a few quotations from the author and to praise her lavishly. But the net impression was that Van Camp was a veritable polymath.

[Section] The Avant-Garde Dismiss. Useful for establishing one's authority in the area of fiction, this device is essentially a mental set that enables one to consign to oblivion any writer who does not write like, say, Samuel Beckett. Thus the critic may peremptorily dismiss all novels with plot, setting and characterization. The danger of the Avant-Garde Dismiss is, of course, that those who employ it might be branded as recherche. The rewards, though, are considerable, not only in time saved but in the prestige one acquires in small but powerful literary circles.

[Section] The Sly Thrust. This stratagem requires a minimal talent for puns and pseudo-epigrams. Pioneered by Dorothy Parker ("The Body Beautiful is the play lousy"), it was practiced by reviewers at Time for many years and consists of twists on the author's name or the title of the book. A few examples:

"In Ten North Frederick the philandering hero leaves his young, beautiful mistress, returns to his dreary wife and proceeds to drink himself to death--a form of O'Hara Kiri."

"[Any novel about coal-miners] is the pits."

(An example of the indispensable Last-Line Put-Down. If one can think of a cutting punch line--ideally, before having read the book--the review is as good as written.)

"The final scenes of Dr. Zhivago seemed to have been composed with one eye on the box office--as though the author had undergone a name-change from Boris to Joe Pasternak."

"The Name of the Rose will endure as long as books are unread."

The main virtue of this technique is that it enables one to display one's own cleverness, thus upstaging the autor--a fundamental objective of Reviewmanship.

[Section] The Stepford Counterpunch. Lawrence Stepford was a critic affiliated with the influential literary journal Upper West Side Review. He made a considerable reputation by writing resoundingly negative critiques of books that had been praised to the skies. A former colleague has described his methods:

Larry had an uncanny instinct for a certain kind of book--the big, heavy or pretentious novels that set the critical pack barking for joy. The By Love Possesseds and the Pale Fires--you know the kind of thing. After spotting them on the front page of The New York Times Book Review he would bide his time. Then at the perfect cultural moment he would strike. It was all in the timing. He was like a surfer who could sense when the critical wave had crested. He knew that if you make your move too soon, you look like a fool, while if you wait too long, nobody cares anyome. Timing--that was Larry's secret. That and the instincts of a Jack the Ripper.

These then are some of the basic techniques of Reviewmanship. Study them, practice them. Once mastered, they will serve you on every conceivable literary occasion--whether it is punishing an enemy, rewarding a friend or winning favor with a patron. To paraphrase Dr. Johnson, "A man is a blockhead who writes a book review only for money." Or in the words of Inwood-Hill, "Criticism is a jealous master; the Reviewman's gift is to make it a faithful servant."
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Title Annotation:different techniques for reviewing books
Author:Lingeman, Richard
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1984
Words:1626
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