God bless Robert Darnton for beginning his discussion of letters of recommendation like this:

The main problem in writing letters of recommendation derives from a basic contradiction: the recommender wants to promote the candidate, yet at the same time he or she needs to convey the impression of giving an objective evaluation. I see no way around this problem. Unnuanced encomium will inspire disbelief, and unadorned frankness will be self-defeating. The most common strategy is to begin the recommendation with a barrage of praise and then to add nuances that can sound somewhat critical. On the whole, this works: the recipient is assumed to be savvy enough to discount for the rhetoric while understanding that the recommended is a less-than-perfect human being, like the rest of us. The trick is to get the balance right.

Too right. For the love of mike, people, everything we write is an artifice, a trick, and if well-performed, a tour de force — which is to say, a stunt. There is no shame in this — there is no point in professing shame at this — it is unavoidable. On the other hand, how can it be possible it’s necessary for Darnton to point this out — that roughly thirty years since “the linguistic turn” we have a profession infested with people who think that narrative can be the romantic effusion of a soul, presented unmediated to the reader? Jeez-o-pete.

Related anecdote: In a certain federal British university, the tutors sending students for instruction to experts in another field write what amount to internal letters of recommendation. They are brutally frank. Indeed, I believe there is an implicit competition to undersell your pupils. “Jones is a bit thick, but diligent.” “Johnson cannot focus on one thing for two minutes running and, as I taught his father, I can say he has the family tendency to value rowing higher than writing. Still, one does what one can.”