Reviewing books

This is cross-posted from Southerly, where I am blogging in December.

The book reviewer's office

I thought, for this post, that I would share some of my own personal mantras/guidelines for reviewing books. I’ve been reviewing books for about 4.5 years. That means, really, I’m still pretty new at it. I started out with LiteraryMinded and mini-reviews in Bookseller+Publisher magazine. I have now reviewed for a range of publications, including Australian Book Review, the Age, the Sydney Morning HeraldBookslutCorditeMascara and the Australian.

After reading this you might also understand why I called the thoughts in my previous Southerly post ‘non-reviews’ as opposed to reviews. They were more off-hand, less structured – a jumble of thoughts and impressions rather than a proper review.

So here are, in no particular order, many of the things I consider when reviewing a book. If you’re a reviewer, burgeoning or experienced, feel free to add your own ‘guidelines’ in the comments. Perhaps you also might want to take me up on some of mine.

*

Give a brief introduction to the story.

Never give away the ending. If it’s an ‘analysis’, not a review and you have to give away the ending, warn your reader.

Show awareness of the author’s intentions, and whether or not they were successful in achieving them (in your opinion – it’s always in your opinion).

Provide some small sample of the prose, or a description of the prose style, so the reader knows whether it’s for them.

Make note of the main themes and issues in the text (unless it will majorly take away from the pleasure of reading it).

The review itself can tell a story.

Compare the book to similar works; works in the same genre and/or to the author’s other works.

Be honest.

Provide some original insight into the text. Or try to.

Don’t read other reviews before the first draft of your review. Form all your own ideas first, and draft a review, before looking at any other material (except maybe the press release for author info, etc.). After you know what your ideas are, you may consider the opinions of others.

Be fair. If you perceive the book as being flawed, don’t focus purely on that. Find the strengths as well as the flaws (if you can).

If it’s a debut book, be very careful with your criticism. You can still be honest and not tear the author to shreds.

If you really find a book loathsome consider that it might just not be for you. Perhaps it would be gracious to let someone else read and review it who might better understand the author’s intentions. Or it really could be loathsome… Consider this carefully. Try to analyse what mood you’re in, too, and whether this is influencing your reaction.

If you have the time, go back to a book the following day or week and reconsider it. Make sure you really mean what you do.

Don’t be afraid to be passionate and enthusiastic. Be open-minded, too. Irony and ‘cleverness’ are fashionable, particularly online. But you can risk coming across as arrogant and/or superficial, and people will tire of you. Be genuine. That said, you may often have to tone down the enthusiasm (remove some ‘floaty’ words and adjectives from early drafts). You can find smart ways to show your enthusiasm. Write enthusiasm well. See a lot of Geordie Williamson’s reviews for this.

Pitch books that you are really interested in, that you think deserve the space. Or blog about them. Small press, short stories, poetry, Australian authors, literary journals – if they interest you then go for it. Contribute to a healthy and heterogeneous literary landscape. Get people reading widely and with an open mind.

Write for publications that interest you. Writing for some small journals like Cordite or Mascara or overseas outlets like Bookslut don’t pay much (or at all) but if you love what they do, it may be worth it. Write for someone if you’re proud to see your name on their pages. You may only be able to write for them once a year (for financial reasons) but the reviews can sometimes be more challenging than the paid ones – more thorough, more academic. Often the (also underpaid or unpaid) editors are very good and it can be a great experience working with them.

Become a better writer and critic by reading other reviews, online and off, and by practicing. As well as, of course, reading a LOT of books.

Make yourself valuable and indispensable. You could become the expert on a certain genre. Or become the person who has read every work by a particular author. You might end up being the ‘go-to’ person for that area, or that author. Maybe one day you’ll even write an introduction to a book on the subject or the author’s collection.

Don’t review books by your friends.

[Aside: I have a policy on this. For me, a friend is someone whose phone number I have, who I have arranged to hang out with at least once. I have reviewed books by acquaintances – people I’ve met. I may even be Facebook friends with some of them, but we don’t really know each other. I think it’s okay to review books by people you’ve met (as that’s pretty unavoidable in this small industry) but not people you really know. If you’ve met several times, had lunch, been drunk together, feel very fond of them, don’t review their book. It’s really too hard then to be objective (not that I believe reviews are ever entirely objective.) There are different scales of this, but I know on an innate level whose books I should review and whose I shouldn’t. Listen to yourself on this. You want people to respect you in the industry. Sometimes you’ll become friends with an author after a review, which can be lovely. What do you do if you are very fond of someone, know them personally, and really still want to write about their book? Do an interview with them! Why not? You can talk all about how you met and how great they are in an interview. If you absolutely must write a review, it is probably a respectful thing to do to leave a disclaimer above the review saying that you are very familiar with the author.]

Try to learn what your tics are when reviewing, and combat them. You might use too many dashes, overwrite, generalise, use the word ‘thing’ too often, or use the same adjectives all the time. Don’t worry too much on the first draft, but be rigorous in the edit. If you have time, give it to someone else to read. They might spot errors you never will.

Never forget what a privilege it is to do what you do.

8 thoughts on “Reviewing books

  1. Hey Angela, I find it’s tricky to make book reviews (or most sorts of reviews) interesting and non-formulaic, particularly with the shorter ones, because there is kind of a checklist of stuff you have to do. But I guess it’s part of the challenge to be creative while still ticking the boxes.

    Anyway, I’ve done a handful of book reviews in the past, but I’d like to get more into it in the new year. There’s some good advice and food for thought for that here, so thanks.

  2. I enjoy that challenge of still trying to make them interesting to read, despite ‘ticking a few boxes’. And you don’t always have to tick the boxes. It depends on the book. It’s just fair to the reader to arm them with the right kind of information (while making the review a kind of ‘story’ on its own). It is a good challenge!

    And no probs, you’ll probably come up with your own ‘mantras’. I’m sure mine will evolve further. But I’m glad I’ve provided some food for thought, anyway.

  3. Angela – thank you so much for posting this! This post is going straight to my bookmarks folder. I’ve only been reviewing for only a year and a bit, and every time I sit down to write a review, I feel as utterly clueless as I did the first time.

    As I read through your list, I can see some of my own reviewing weaknesses glaring back at me. Some are old foes (I know I have a problem with repeating certain words, and that I use way too many dashes) whereas some are new to me. Like expressing my enthusiasm, for instance. When I love a book, I want *everyone* to know about it…

    As a side note, I’d love to know how you keep your literary writings and your fiction writing separate. I struggle with going from one mindset to the other – for me, they’re completely different things.

    • But I like your reviews!

      Thank you, though. Glad it was useful in some way.

      Hmm, good question. If I’m writing the very first draft of something in the fiction vein then I’ll try to do it first thing in the morning, before I’ve engaged with anything in a critical mindset. But not always. I think there is always space, though, between writing a review and writing fiction. (Maybe I read in between.) When I’m doing a second or third draft, though, I might not need as much space between. The inner critic can be a bit more useful then. But yes, definitely try to turn off the critic on that first draft, I think. And just power through. It can be fixed up later. But that’s just me. Everyone writes so differently.

      When I was working full time for a while I was getting up at 6 to write fiction, then doing the blog/reviews in the evenings. It did just about drive me mad, though. I’m not a morning person.

  4. Thanks for the good advice, Angela. I’ve done very little reviewing, but have signed up to do a couple this year as part of two ‘reading challenges.’ I’ll keep your post handy when I sit down to write them!

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