Previously on OLM: Advice to a Young Reviewer

We’ve taken a look back at 2018—now let’s go back even farther, to where it all began. . .

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This book review by Steve Donoghue was originally published on December 1, 2016 at Open Letters Monthly

Our book today is a slim little thing from 1927: Advice to a Young Reviewer, a quick mini-pamphlet dashed off at white heat by Edward Copleston, who was born in Devon in 1776, attended Oxford, and became Bishop of

Llandaff and Dean of St. Paul’s in 1828. Copleston was apparently a feisty old codger of a churchman, prone to writing irate letters to the editor and never standing on the dignity of his office if there was a likely-looking tempest in some local teapot.

According to the wonderfully snarky preface to this little volume, the good bishop had plenty of energy to spare for these little issues because he was blithely uninterested in all the big issues of his day:

Edward Copleston was born in the year of the birth of modern America. It was in March of that year that the British troops evacuated Boston, which Washington had been besieging since the previous autumn; in July came the Declaration of American Independence. During the seventy years of Copleston’s life violent and radical changes took place practically all over Europe, and many in his own country, but he was singularly little affected by them.

In this case, the little issue that stuck in Copleston’s craw was a carping negative review in The British Critic of a slim volume of poetry by Richard Mant, Bishop of Down in Ireland. Aggrieved by this lengthy (and of course anonymous, the style of the day for book reviews) takedown of the work of a fellow cleric, Copleston wrote a sarcastic counter-blast purporting to give advice to anybody just starting out in the reviewing business. He advises such a beginning first and foremost to Write what will sell – reminding them that if they don’t first sell their reviews, their work can’t possibly have any influence.

But he also warns against influence itself, even anonymous influence. Better by far, he sneers, to follow popular taste than to lead it. Better to crib from an author’s own Preface rather than actually know what you’re writing about. “The task of pleasing is at all times easier than that of instructing,” he writes, and what better way to please than by mastering the time-honored antics then in use down the Old Bailey? Not the antics of judges, who at least attempt to be, well, judicial, summing things up dispassionately according to their merits; rather, Copleston’s crass, opportunistic young reviewers should copy the courtroom theatrics of the barristers:

Instead of vainly aspiring therefore to the gravity of a magistrate, I would advise him, when he sits down to write, to place himself in the imaginary situation of a cross-examining pleader. He may comment, in a vein of agreeable irony, upon the profession, the manner of life, the look, dress, or even the name of the witness he is examining: when he has raised a contemptuous opinion of him in the minds of the court, he may proceed to draw answers from him capable of a ludicrous turn, and he may carve and garble those to his own liking.

The Preface bids farewell to our author with just the same withering tone with which it introduced him (the thing is signed only “V. M. D.” and I think it might be worth the effort to find out who that was):

Acting his part (unremembered now) courageously and conscientiously on the small stage of University life, Copleston was remarkable neither for character nor for gifts, but as a type he is significant when the back-cloth of the times is unfolded behind him. All day long the noise of battle rolled, but Edward Copleston, D.D., in the centre of the Oxford Movement, hardly heard it. Certainly he did not strain his ears for tidings.

But although Copleston might have been happily unaware of the newspaper headlines happening all around him, I couldn’t help reflecting, after I read his little blast, that for all his cloistered life, he saw the reviewing world clearly enough. Some of the reviewing gimmicks he snickers at in his pages are very much in use today – reviewers still get called on the carpet for them in practically every letters column of the TLS, usually by the authors of the books under review, angry that such shabby practices were used to sum up their labor of years. And although Copleston was clueless enough to be sarcastic when he instructed reviewers to write what will sell, his reasoning was impeccable, even more so nowadays, when freelance book reviewers are no longer anonymous: if you pitch only the most recondite arcana to commissioning editors, not only will they give you no work but they’ll also begin to associate you with recondite arcana.

And that isn’t even the sharpest irony in Advice to a Young Reviewer. In order to strut his stuff a bit, Copleston finishes up his screed by offering a tongue-in-cheek example of the kind of mealy-mouthed and corner-cutting review he’s been describing. By way of high fun, he himself writes a reviewer-speak review of L’Allegro by John Milton – and whoever the previous owner of this copy was (the book plate says “W. S. Tryon”) didn’t even bother to read the mock review: the pages are uncut. Sic transit, etc.