On writing book reviews –

review journals
Flickr user: herzogbr

There have been a lot of debates lately about book reviews and how blogs approach book reviews, both in their honesty and in their style.  After having a conversation with my roommate and new book blogger Weremonkey at A Book Blog. Period. I have decided to put my thoughts onto paper, well metaphorically speaking since this isn’t technically on paper.  You know what I mean.

First, I have been closely following the debates on several blogs, but especially on Jackie’s Farm Lane Books.  Jackie is one of those bloggers that I’ve always thought had similar taste, so when her particular style was addressed, I figured maybe it was time I took a long, hard look at my own reviews. While I like the conversational style of my posts, I also think it’s important to create well-crafted book reviews that people want to read.  I hope I have done that, but there are certain things I plan on including more, like more quotes from the books I read, more passages, so you can get a better feel for the style.

My stance on negative reviews: YES.   They are very, very important.  Just as important as positive reviews.  First of all, I didn’t even expect this to even be a question.  If you don’t feel comfortable writing bad reviews, then don’t do it.  But seriously, if I don’t like a book then I’m gonna tell you.  I try to be fair and say that the book just wasn’t for me, but if there were things that I thought were seriously flawed, then I’m going to say it.  Got it?  Good.  HOWEVER: On Jackie’s informative post, that has gotten a lot of comments, there was one comment by Stewart at BookLit that I really liked.  John Updike, a prolific writer and book reviewer, has his list of rules when writing good book reviews, and I really like it:

1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

2. Give him enough direct quotation–at least one extended passage–of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.

3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy precis.

4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending.

5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never (John Aldridge, Norman Podhoretz) try to put the author “in his place,” making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.”

A lot of these points are things I have tried to do in the past, but I think I will print this out and tape it to my computer.  I have been unnecessarily angry at authors before: see my review of Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying.  At the same time, I’m going to be honest when the failure is all mine, because this isn’t just about the quality of the book, it’s about the quality of my reading experience, and that’s that.

On a side note, that is somewhat related:

CB James at his own blog, Ready When You Are, CB, also recently had a post on improving his style after reading Stephen King’s On Writing. I am first a reader, but, at a close second, I am a writer.  Confession time!: I aspire to write poetry and novels and well-crafted book reviews.  I have been moderately disappointed with my sloppy writing, and like CB, plan on improving it (and definitely picking up King’s book).

There, I’m glad we got all that out on the table.  I feel much better now!

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18 thoughts on “On writing book reviews –

  1. I am always gobsmacked when this stupid debate rears its ugly head yet again. Good for you, though, for standing on the side of craftsmanship and common sense.

  2. Emily — good use of gobsmacked. Wonderful word.

    I would use flummoxed to describe my reaction to the “bad review” debate. What debate? Review does not mean praise, it means review the thing — good parts and bad.

    Lu — where did the Updike quote come from. It’s great.

    1. Flummoxed is very appropriate! I never thought there was a debate either… I didn’t like a book? YOU’LL KNOW. And I never questioned that. As for the Updike quote, I do not have the original source, but I found it on the comment page from the original post on Farm Lane Books by the blogger from BookLit.

  3. I’ve actually had “On Writing” by Stephen King in my TBR pile for quite a while. Thanks to your blogpost, I immediately started reading it last night. It’s great so far. I had not realized that this book could be relevant to my blog writing!

    Updike’s opinions on book reviewing are good food for thought, too.

  4. The Updike quote comes from his introduction to his non-fiction colllection Picked-Up Pieces from 1975. I should add that the emphasis (“Try to understand the failure…”) was mine, and not Updike’s.

    Jackie is one of those bloggers that I’ve always thought had similar taste, so when her particular style was addressed, I figured maybe it was time I took a long, hard look at my own reviews.

    I think the important thing to consider is whether what you’ve written is a review</review. A review implies you are looking at the text, understanding it, and reporting back on its success. What Jackie had called a review as regards Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall wasn’t really a review of the book so much as it was an account of her reading experience, and frustrations, which is different.

    An example from the blog post in question would be “I also found repetition, which I found irritating” (let’s ignore the repetition of the word ‘found’) where the provision of a quote out of context doesn’t prove that it’s irritating. What needs to be understood is what the writer was trying to achieve by the repetition and, if it makes sense, then all is well.

    My stance on negative reviews: YES. They are very, very important. Just as important as positive reviews.

    Oh, I’m all for negative reviews too, provided they are justified. A particular favourite would be Philip Hensher’s all-out attack on James Thackera’s The Book Of Kings (“it is a book of gigantic, hopeless awfulness”).

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