One advantage of being the L.A. Times deputy book editor was this: I rarely reviewed a book I didn't like. Every week, I sorted through piles and piles of new books for only those things that resonated with me -- if something didn't, I wouldn't write about it.
But what happened if I was a hundred pages into a book before I realized it was a dog?
What would I do then ... drop it?
Are you crazy? I couldn't do that -- I'd already committed too much time to it! I had to review it! So, there were a few options open to me:
Damn it with faint praise
Forget faint praise and be ruthless -- break its back just like Bane
Give most of the review space to the subject, not the actual book ... and then finish off the piece with a sentence about how the book was"helpful" or "serviceable" (which I guess sounds like the first option). It sounds like praise, but it isn't. Calling a book "helpful" puts it in the same category as a shovel. Or a Boy Scout.
I was reminded of this reviewing strategy as I was leafing through a recent TLS issue and came across this sentence at the top of a review of a biography of Edward VII:
In his enjoyably evenhanded potted life of Edward VII, Richard Davenport-Hines balances terseness with orotundity....
Let's get a few things straight: The only thing that can ever be nicely described as "potted" is a fern or a gardenia bush.
And that word "evenhanded" is as bad as "helpful" and "serviceable." It sounds as if the biographer is getting applause for not being hysterical. And that word near the end, "orotundity" ... good God, does anyone really use a word like that today?
I felt sorry for the biographer, and I was reminded of that old cliche that says all publicity, even bad publicity, is better than nothing at all. When I finished reading this snide review, I couldn't help thinking nothing at all might be better.