March 5, 2012
John Leonard’s rules for criticism
by Kelly Burdick
How wonderful to be reminded of John Leonard’s rules for criticism in the debut issue of “The Slate Book Review.” There Troy Patterson reviews Leonard’s posthumous collection of essays, Reading for My Life: Writings, 1958-2008, and smartly quotes from the 2004 essay “Smash-Mouth Criticism,” wherein Leonard “took up an epée to flick the ear of Dale Peck and suggested ‘some hard-won guidelines for responsible reviewing'”:
First, as in Hippocrates, do no harm. Second, never stoop to score a point or bite an ankle. Third, always understand that in this symbiosis, you are the parasite. Fourth, look with an open heart and mind at every different kind of book with every change of emotional weather because we are reading for our lives and that could be love gone out the window or a horseman on the roof. Fifth, use theory only as a periscope or a trampoline, never a panopticon, a crib sheet or a license to kill. Sixth, let a hundred Harolds Bloom.
Kelly Burdick is the former executive editor of Melville House.