Authors, Editors and Reviewers on the Art of Reviewing, Part 1

Last term, my History of Publishing class talked about the gatekeeper role of publishers and how they select and develop books, ideas and authors. As you might expect, we noted that as large publishers consolidated, they’ve invested less in authors and ideas. That disinvestment (plus changing economic conditions and technology) has opened the doors for small independent publishers who are more nimble and risk-tolerant.

What we didn’t quite get to this year is the parallel between the gatekeeping role of publishers and the gatekeeping role of reviewers: how do we (book-buyers and library-users) decide what to read? Do we follow a favorite author? Take the advice of a book group, friends or spouse? Follow Goodreads, the New York Times Book Review or the New York Review of Books? Read the Amazon reviews? Get hooked by book advertisements in mass or social media?

They’re all imperfect. Print reviews are constrained by word and page limits, reader-interest and inertia. Many on-line reviews are susceptible to five-star friends and family or one-star competitors. Amateur reviewers can be incisive and informed, or they can be raving fanboys or snarks. (Or worse.Take a look at how some ideologues anonymously one-starred Brian Griffith’s Correcting Jesus on Barnes and Noble’s lax online site.) Even professional reviewers can embarrassingly misread books (e.g., Janet Maslin, reviewing Patrick Somerville’s This Bright River, misidentified a main character in a way that undercut her conclusions).

New York Times critic-at-large (and former Ashlander) Sam Anderson, reminds us that reviewers (he calls them critics) “can no longer take readers’ interest for granted” but must write about fundamental questions “with more energy, more art, more conviction, more excitement and a deeper sense of personal investment.” And Jonathan Landman, the Times culture editor says that “A reader should walk away with a feeling of having learned something; maybe some unfamiliar facts about a work and its creator; maybe some historical or philosophical background; perhaps something about the art form itself.”

What makes a good book review? What should a book reviewer do (and not do)? What are the obligations of reviewers? I asked some writers, editors, and reviewers this, and here’s what I heard.

From Tod Davies, editor and publisher at Exterminating Angel Press

    Really, the most important thing is that the reviewer should actually have read the book. You would be astonished, or maybe not, to know how many people give opinions, often quite strong ones, based on what they think the book is or should be about, rather than what it is. But of course this is a problem in human interaction generally.

From Jeff Baker, Book Review Editor for the Oregonian

    What I always tell prospective reviewers is that a good review should do three things: say what the book is about, whether the reviewer liked it or not, and why. Not as easy as it looks in 500 words. Beyond that, a good review should both pique an interest in reading the book and provide enough information and context to know what it’s about without reading it. Again, not as easy as it seems.

From Adam Woog, author and crime and mystery reviewer for The Seattle Times.

    One thing that really burns me: finishing a review and knowing more about the reviewer’s own thoughts than about the book itself. There’s a place for a personal essay inspired by a book, but not when it’s disguised as a review telling me if the book would interest me.

    Maybe related to that is when a reviewer tries to impress me with his/her erudition and overall sense of superior intellect. I know a lot of big words, but I spend most of my time writing books for middle-school students and a newspaper — I’m very conscious of the need to write cleanly and concisely for an audience that may not know all of those big words. It’s satisfying to read a review that gets a complex book’s point across in an unadorned style (without dumbing it down).

From freelance reviewer Audrey Homan:

    Impartiality plus critical thought equals a win. If all you post is positive reviews — and indeed some blogs state up front that all they do is positive reviews — then I’m just gonna assume you’re shilling for the man and move on. I want reviews that explain what worked and didn’t work, along with examples.

    If the writing’s flat and lifeless, include a passage you think exemplifies that. If you didn’t care if the whole cast of characters got hit by a train, tell me what would’ve made you pull their helpless persons off the tracks. Did the man with the gun ever make it into the plot? Was he late? Was the gun in a vase of azaleas? It’s just as important to show your work in a book review as a mathematical proof.

From Brian Griffith, author of A Galaxy of Immortal Women: The Yin Side of Chinese Civilization and Correcting Jesus. Correcting Jesus: 2000 Years of Changing the Story, The Gardens of Their Dreams: Desertification and Culture in World History, and Different Visions of Love: Partnership and Dominator Values in Christian History.

    I think book reviews should be short–maybe three to six lines. I don’t think people want to read essays while shopping for books. The point should be what’s important about the book, or what contribution it makes. If it doesn’t make a significant contribution, I wouldn’t bother saying so. When I write reviews, I’m trying to promote significant ideas while promoting myself at the same time. I make a hopefully astute observation about the book, and sign it.

Stay tuned for more…

About Ed Battistella

Edwin Battistella’s latest book Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology was released by Oxford University Press in June of 2014.
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