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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.