The way I heard the story, The New York Times printed a book review with some nasty words about an author who set out to become the smartest person in the world by reading the encyclopedia.
1. Do not set out to be the smartest person in the world by reading the encyclopedia. Don’t even joke about it. If your aim is to read the encyclopedia and write about what you learned in a book called The Know-It-All, the Times Book Review might call you a “simpleton.” It might even call you a “jackass.”
2. Don’t be a jackass.
I was making a list of rules that would help me avoid being called a jackass in the NYT. I had a hunch that such an epithet might be bad for book sales. I started by reading the infamous review, published on Oct. 3, 2004. The reviewer, Dan Queenan, had more to say about the author, A. J. Jacobs, so I added some of his language to better clarify Rule 2. “Don’t be an unintelligent, humorless, mesmerizingly uninformative simpleton of a jackass.”
Now I was getting somewhere. I delved into past issues of the Times to see how authors got themselves into trouble and how I might avoid their mistakes. In making my rules, I found the concluding lines of book reviews to be most instructive.
3. Don’t reveal a total lack of imagination and literary sensibility: “[The author’s] exhaustive bibliography, nearly 1,800 footnotes and innumerable interviews makes his book invaluable from a documentary point of view. Its almost total lack of humor, imagination or literary sensibility will send readers back with renewed relish to his subject’s novels.” (Nov. 11, 2001) Readers? After that review, what readers?
4. If you are “insufferably dull,” find a competent editor: “Golfers may not know how insufferably dull such hole-by-hole recitations can be, but their unfortunate dinner companions do. And their editors certainly should.” (Feb. 3, 2002)
5. Don’t write a book that does not compare favorably to other books you have written: “So if you’re expecting a great legal thriller, pick up an earlier Grisham novel.” (Jan 9, 2005)
6. Don’t write a book that does not compare favorably to future books you might never write: “You can only hope that by her next book, Nani Power is, as one of her characters might say, ready to live again.” (Feb. 6, 2005) What next book?
7. Don’t write a book that does not favorably compare to other books on a similar topic: “[H]aving read “ Argall,” I was prompted to return to John Smith’s marvelous “Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles” (1624), which was obviously a major source for Vollmann. A book could have worse consequences.” (Sept. 30, 2001) Could it? This book is not marvelous. Read a book that is marvelous. I just happen to have the name of a marvelous other book right here!
8. Don’t live well, get a good book deal, or obtain a position of some respect in the arts, certainly not if you have impeccable manners or an air of quiet sympathy: “In his capacity as chairman of the N.E.A. and as champion of neglected poets (are there any other kind?), Gioia might be mistaken for the passionate defender of a beleaguered art in troubled times. Really, though, with his impeccable manners, his air of quiet sympathy and his well-worn phrases of comfort and conciliation, he is more like an undertaker.” (Nov. 21, 2004). The author is not a passionate defender of the arts. Don’t make that mistake. He is doing all he can to drive the beleaguered art into the ground. Dead.