P.D. James’ advice to reviewers
Over the weekend, I had occasion to return to P.D. James’ Time to Be in Earnest, which I reviewed about 18 months ago. The occasion was that I had just read John Bayley’s Elegy for Iris (review forthcoming), a memoir of his wife, novelist Iris Murdoch, who was then suffering from Alzheimer’s (she died in 1999). I recalled that James had had a strong reaction to Bayley’s book, which was being excerpted by the Times while James was writing her own book, and I wanted to refresh myself on what she’d said about it. (She found it “moving but distressingly frank” — but more on that in my review.)
Anyway, while flipping through James on the aforesaid mission, I came across her excellent list of “somewhat presumptuous advice” for book reviewers. As a book author and book reviewer, I found it sound and articulate at the time (who else uses the word “meretricious” in a list? love it!), and upon second reading now, I’ve decided to be presumptuous, too, and reproduce it here for all of our edification. Enjoy!
1. Always read the whole of the book before you write your review.
2. Don’t undertake to review a book if it is written in a genre you particularly dislike.
3. Review the book the author has written, not the one you think he/she should have written.
4. If you have prejudices—and you’re entitled to them—face them frankly and, if appropriate, acknowledge them.
5. Be scathingly witty if you must and can, but never be deliberately cruel, except to those writers who themselves deal in cruelty, and therefore presumably expect it.
6. If you absolutely hate the book and have nothing either interesting or positive to say, why review it? Any review gives a book much-wanted publicity and it is a pity to waste space on a book which is meretricious or dishonest when you could be saying something of value about one worth reading. An exception to this rule is an eagerly awaited major work by a well-known writer when the verdict of leading critics is expected.
7. If you are given a book to review [written] by a close friend and you strongly dislike it, don’t review it. We none of us like hurting our friends and the temptation to be over-kind is too strong.
8. Resist the temptation to use a review to pay back old scores or to vent your dislike of the author’s sex, class, politics, religion or lifestyle. Try to believe that it is possible for people of whom you disapprove to write a good book.
Taken from p. 93, Time to Be in Earnest: A Fragment of Autobiography, by P.D. James, Ballantine, 1999.