Tuesday, January 7, 2014

How to Write a Review Like Chris Hitchens

I have spent the last couple of weeks reading Arguably by Chris Hitchens for both enrichment and as a book to review. The bulk of the first half of the essays presented are Hitchens's reviews of books, and now that I have had the privilege of reading some three dozen of them back-to-back, I realize that his success was owed largely to a very refined formula for the genre. To help other writers, I have boiled Hitchens's masterful formula down to an easy-to-follow template. It is my hope that all of us in the reading and reviewing community can make use of this template to improve our own book reviews. - MSMjr.


  1. Introduction -- Context & Background
    1. Pretentious opening paragraph loaded with unsupported and judgmental assertion, preferably name-dropping some literary reference that provides a showy but not entirely accurate metaphor for the conversation we’re about to have.
    2. Discussion of the work in question in terms that are both condescending to the original writer and flattering to the writer of the essay.
    3. Either undeserved praise that locates the writer’s socioeconomic, racial, and sexual identities firmly in the ruling class or verbose vitriol loaded with showy but ultimately failed double entendre dependent totally on the reader’s patience. If the latter, be sure it still locates the writer firmly in the ruling class by establishing that he (and if we’re imitating Hitchens, all brilliant essayists will be a “he”) is above embarrassment by his own words, however ridiculous the less lettered classes find them to be.
    4. Out of place comparison to P.G. Wodehouse and/or inside jokes about British boarding schools.
  2. First Section of the Body -- Long-Winded Exposition
    1. Long discussion of the historic significance of the work in question that makes no reference to the work, cites no sources, and depends largely on decades of accumulated cocktail party gossip about literary figures that used to be celebrities before popular music grew to dominate the cultural discourse in the Anglosphere.
    2. Discussion of the major themes of the work in question using judgmental assertion supported by a mixture of hyperbole, prejudice, and aspersions cast against the character of one’s political opponents.
      1. If the book being reviewed supports the writer’s political views, use it to attack other critics of the book and/or to explain the importance of the writer’s opposition to totalitarianism. If possible, find a way to show that colonial imperialism is really about preventing the re-assertion of Stalinism. Use this to fan paranoia about encroaching hordes of brown people you don’t understand. Pretend George Orwell would have approved, then cite Kipling.
      2. If the book in question is written by a writer whose views the author finds questionable, attempt to show that the writer in question is hypocritical by assuming prurient interests on his/her part whenever sympathy for oppressed populations is shown. If that is not possible, compare the writer unfavorably to Ian Fleming or Rudyard Kipling. Failing that, spread rumors about boarding-school sodomy and/or call the work boring.
    3. Discuss the personal history of the writer in a way that establishes your intimacy with either published private letters or the actual person. Discuss changes to his character over time. Make the review briefly about whether or not you approve of the writer’s personal life.
  3. Second Section of the Body -- Filler
    1. Cite your favorite Wodehouse novel and discuss the merits of the jokes contained in that section. After two or three paragraphs, make a one-sentence connection to the book you’re actually reviewing so that people can understand whether the Wodehouse joke is meant to convey approval or damnation.
    2. Discuss Ian Fleming and/or George MacDonald Frasier in a way that shows that you are fully aware of the racism, sexism, imperialism, and addiction issues inherent in jingoist spy novels. Then convey your approval of them anyway.
      1. If this is inappropriate to the subject matter, go ahead and repeat step A.
    3. Spend a few paragraphs verbosely relating the major historic moments that surrounded the advent of this book. Be sure to use only common knowledge, unless you happen to have read and positively reviewed a relevant historical monograph recently.
      1. If you rely on common knowledge, be sure to use inaccessible language to disguise the fact that you’re falling back on grammar school history lessons.
      2. If you are citing a monograph, use the author’s opinion as much as possible so that you have a chance to argue for that author’s thesis statement in this book review. Make a 2 or 3 sentence transition at the end that elides the fact that you have now changed the topic of your essay three or four times.
    4. Free choice. You would never want to submit a book review that actually confined itself to the form, content, or length of traditional book reviews because you are an artist, and your failure to produce either prose or poetry for public consumption has little relevance to the fact that you deserve to have an uncensored platform and public applause. You may now do two of the following:
      1. Relate a story about either dining out or cocktail parties that employs more name-dropping and gossip. This is especially effective if you happen to have dined with either diplomats or aging homosexuals recently. If the latter, pretend that gay rights have diminished the culture of homosexuality in some intangible way.
      2. Pick two of the items from any other part of this outline and repeat them without acknowledging that you are filling space with tangential thought.
      3. Slam Gore Vidal for being a 9/11 truther by citing his long history of anti-semitism.
      4. Drone on endlessly about the lack of imagination shown by hack writers of this generation. (This one is usually chosen if you have spent a lot of time defending hacks like Ian Fleming. The hypocrisy adds flavor to your essay.)
      5. Write several paragraphs of disturbing masturbatory praise for Nabokov. Make sure that you discuss how amoral Humbert Humbert is and how important it was that Nabokov included so many moments that revealed the abuse and anguish suffered by Dolores in Lolita. Try to squeeze it in between the paragraphs discussing how natural it is for men to want to have sex with barely pubescent girls. The reader needs to understand that, while you would never act on those feelings, you consider them a natural part of being male and you imagine everyone else shares them.
      6. Two more Wodehouse references, this time to his work in the theater and/or Hollywood. Alternatively, one more Wodehouse reference that compares the movie version of one of his novels to the original text.
  4. Conclusion -- Remind the reader that you’ve been reviewing a book
    1. Cocktail party stories do a good job of reminding the reader that you are important because you are friends with all the celebrity writers of your generation.
      1. If you’re reviewing a book by someone you have never met in person (by which I mean, “if you are writing a negative review”), you may replace this section with another inappropriate comparison to a hack novelist you enjoyed when you were younger. Choose someone already mentioned in your essay, and make sure that they have exactly the same flaws in their writing that you found in the book you’re reviewing. Complete this trope by insisting that the version from your own youth was superior.
      2. If you don’t have any fresh stories about literature that you consider “highbrow” because the writer happens to have been born into privilege, you can always refer to Orwell again. It’s important to lean hard on him lest your readers forget that you consider yourself a leftist, since it would hardly do to pollute a book review with tangential political diatribes.
      3. If all else fails, say something scathing about conservatives who have been dead for 100 years and then tie it to your support for American intervention abroad and the importance of working in a bipartisan way to maintain war in the middle east.
    2. Briefly summarize your review with a few sentences of unnecessary and gushing praise or repetitive vitriol, as appropriate.
    3. Make sure you hit the money shot by inventing an illustrious and overly baroque double entendre that utilizes the full weight of your vocabulary to emphasize your familiarity with the slang derived from the pornography industry. The value of this strong closing cannot be overemphasized--if you fail to deliver on it, the audience might remember the bulk of your essay’s actual content, and that would erode your reputation as a reviewer.