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.
9. Don’t use sloppy, cliché-ridden, hyperbolic writing: “Add to this bloat the sloppy, cliché-ridden and hyperbolic writing common to instant books, and the effect of these volumes, singly and collectively, is stupefying…. Long on titillation and superfluous storytelling and short on keen analysis, these books fail even as a first draft of history.” (Feb. 24, 2002) With a little luck, a reviewer can kill three books with one stone. Other reviewers are more comfortable throwing three stones at one target:
“[Ali] Smith’s tone is frequently off when she wants it to be on…. With its flabby language, lame jokes and whiny pretension, “Hotel World’”will send most aficionados of British literary wit and imaginative subtlety scampering straight to the checkout desk.” (Feb. 3, 2002) She might have gotten away with the flabby language if it hadn’t been for the lame jokes and whiny pretension.
10. Don’t forget why people would want to read your book: “Black is a businessman mired in a business scandal, yet Tombs has little more to say about how he managed, or rather mismanaged, his businesses than one might read on the business wires. Even a battalion of ice statues couldn’t make me want to read more.” (Feb. 2, 2005)
11. And avoid obsessing on an image too much in a book (for example, ice statues) unless you want that image used in a cleverly ambiguous concluding sentence that means virtually nothing to anyone but the author.
12. Don’t forget, some reviewers will attack a book for reasons you could never anticipate, in language difficult to fathom: “[T]he text, while filled with sex, is short on ecstasy. The Good Men might well stand up to an academic inquisition, but it lacks the essential freedom for which its characters yearn.” (Jan 20, 2002) Was there much to admire? Yes. Did the book deftly juggle complex intersecting story lines? Yes. So what’s the problem? Short on ecstasy?
13. And no matter what, do not condescend to anyone anywhere anytime: “The next great breakthrough will probably occur at a higher level of cellular organization, explaining not only how the molecules work but how their work is coordinated, second by second, and this may require a different kind of scientist — one capable of handling complexity and self-reflection — possibly even a ‘girl.” (Feb. 24, 2002) You lack self-reflection and are incapable of handling complexity. Even if you are James D. Watson. Even if you are mentioned in the encyclopedia. Enough!
I yearned for the simplicity of Queenan’s review that started my investigation: “Flaubert is famous for coining the term ‘le mot juste’; le mot juste here is ‘jackass.’ Far from becoming the smartest man in the world, Jacobs, at the end of his foolish enterprise, wouldn’t even be the smartest person at Entertainment Weekly.” These were easy rules to remember: Don’t be a jackass. Don’t undertake a foolish enterprise. Don’t ever work at Entertainment Weekly.
As I came to the end of my tiring day searching out lethal book reviews, I saw that Jacobs had responded to the attack on him in an essay, also published in the New York Times Book Review (Feb. 13, 2005), entitled, “I Am Not a Jackass.” So, as far as I could tell, the dialectic went something like this: New York Times: You are a jackass. Jacobs: I am not a jackass.
14. If you want to have a highbrow discussion of books, perhaps the Times Book Review is not the place. I have a feeling that was Jacobs’ point. In the same issue that ran Jacobs’ essay, the editors of the NYTBR professed to like “very much” Queenan’s review because it showed “passion.” Hatred. “Queenan simply disliked Jacobs’ book,” they said, “which was his prerogative.” Queenan hated Jacobs’ book. He hated Jacobs. But not to worry, they said, a review is just one person’s opinion. “[O]ur judgment of a book is summed up in our decision to review it.” A review so maligning as to be noted by other media outlets, they claimed to be “a tribute.” If you can parse this logic, then you must be the smartest person in the world. “Hundreds of prepublication galleys reach our offices each week,” the editors wrote. “We have space to review only a few.”
Now we’re getting somewhere. I think I see where this is going. Yes! The golden rule!
15. Just be happy your book is reviewed… (Here it comes again) You unintelligent, humorless, mesmerizingly uninformative simpleton of a jackass.•
Lawrence Dieker Jr. is the author of Letters from Law School. His next book will be hailed by The New York Times as “both dispassionate and deeply engaged, complicated and simple, erudite and profoundly humane.”