There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of people who review books for publication in magazines and newspapers, many more who review books on the Web. If you add in those who review magazines, newspapers, movies, theater, blogs, websites, Facebook styles, Twitter tweets, what have you, it may reach into the millions (well, that’s an overstatement but you get my point).
Some reviewers are good enough at reviewing that they are paid and paid well for their thoughts on what they’ve read. Some do what I might characterize as a journeyman’s job, competent but not inspired, while others are absolutely, abysmally awful, and shouldn’t be allowed near a pen, pencil or computer when they’re in a reviewing mode.
Reviewers-whether their interest is fiction or non-fiction, pop music or classical, television shows, movies, magazines, blogs or what-have-you-all have their own reviewing styles. I’ve been writing, for pay and for fun, for many years. And I’ve been reading. I’ve read hundreds of thousands of words in print and on the Internet, and have developed strong opinions not only on what makes good writing, but what makes a good review of writing.
What follows is an overview of my personal reviewing style, “reviewing style” meaning how I prepare to write a review, not the actual words I use. But make no mistake, the actual words come from the preparation.
Because I specialize in book reviewing, primarily mysteries and mainstream, with only a smattering about blogs and similar activities, and have never reviewed music or a movie-except among friends-I’m going to limit myself in this post to my thoughts on reviewing books. Another note for complete disclosure: I am not talking about reviewing textbooks, or technical or scholarly tomes that are written for a specific and equally technical or scholarly audience. I am talking about novels, anthologies of short stories, the kinds of things we read mostly for pleasure. So here is my answer to my own question. What makes a good review?
The first thing I do when I review a book is: I READ THE BOOK! Don’t laugh. To write a review by snitching from other reviews or copying what booksellers advertise about it is not at all funny. It is not only unfunny, it’s unfair to the writer, and it’s dishonest. It shouldn’t happen.
Yet I’ve read more than one book review that wasn’t much different from a CliffsNotes. In such cases, it’s easy to see that the reviewer had not actually spent time with the book, except possibly the jacket blurb. In recent days, I’ve read reviews of the same book in different publications that used identical language with no credit to a reviewer, so I couldn’t tell if they were written by the same person or if others were “borrowing.” Sometimes, reviewers apparently skimmed through the book, began to write too soon and in doing so, missed critical points.
Note, however, that I do read ABOUT a book before I settle in to read it for my review. I look at the publishers blurbs, knowing of course their biases. I read the jacket notes, and I always read the foreword and the afterword before I start the actual reading. In books that are heavily footnoted-such as the Teddy Roosevelt trilogy I’m reading now-I look at those back-of-the-book pages also, before I begin reading. I suspect that some writers would prefer that readers not read their afterword until afterward-sorry, couldn’t resist-after they have finished the book, but I find that it makes the story more pleasurable to read, and that’s what, to me, this kind of reading is about.
As I read a book for review, I note chapters and pages to read a second time. I don’t make extensive notes because that interferes with reading; from the earliest pages I want to get a feel for the flow of the story, so I make more mental notes than physical ones. The times when I let my intent to publish a review of the book interfere with reading is when I find a sentence or paragraph that I may want to quote, or if there is a significant philosophical or cultural point being made that I don’t want to lose.
Among the mental notes I make are my reaction to the writer’s style, effectiveness in pulling me in, making me part of the tale being told. I look for idiosyncrasies in people and places that take them out of the ordinary. I note particular turns of phrase or uses of words or descriptions that charm me-or scare me sufficiently to include in the review. And I look for personal characteristics, about the tale being told or the writer, that I can describe that will give the reader additional insight.
My goals in writing a review are two-fold. First, I want to speak to the reader as if we were sitting at my kitchen table sharing thoughts about what we’ve been reading. I don’t pontificate or lecture as if I possess some kind of arcane knowledge about what the writer was thinking. I use first person quite a lot-“I thought… I liked… I hope the reader… my reaction….” and so on. To sum all that up, I want some of me, some of my personal reaction to the book, to come through clearly.
Then, I want to capture the overall feel of the book, share a hint of what I learned about the actors in the story, and the settings in which the author put them without giving anything away that shouldn’t be. Books, I believe, have their own unique personalities beyond their plots, even though they are paper and print or words on a screen, and I want the reader to sense that personality. That’s what makes people want to read something.
If I really don’t like a book at all, I won’t write a review. I am a reviewer, not a literary critic. That’s my own choice. I want to always treat a book’s author with respect, and can usually find a delicate way to put a light critical touch in a review, if necessary. The writer has put time and effort into the work, I respect that, and my not liking it doesn’t mean others won’t.
But I will never resort to sarcasm or nastiness as some reviewers do. I recently-on this blog-wrote a diatribe about a major flaw in a book I had just read. It wasn’t a review, it was just plain old-fashioned blow-off-steam criticism, and I did not use the writer’s name or put any identifying material in it. And I will continue to read that writer’s output.
I’ve had years of experience of having my own writing reviewed and reviewing that of others, accepting and giving criticism, and I’ve learned the importance of saying what I think, but saying it kindly. So that’s how I look at my challenges as a reviewer of some wonderful books, some ordinary books, and some that are, well-unreviewable.