I just got off the phone with my friend, L. Marie, who recently created a blog, “Thoughts about writing and life.” I’m thrilled that she’s blogging! We chatted about Literary Citizenship and how she needs this online presence in order to impress the agents where she’s currently shopping her young adult fantasy book. She has an MFA and is a terrific writer—but she realized that she needed to get online and join the literary world. I talked to her all about what we’re doing in our class; we talked through WordPress and how to add hyperlinks and tags. She’s on a roll now!
She’s also an avid reader, so I encouraged her to do reviews of books (her current blog is a movie review that ties into her writing). And wouldn’t you know it, our Lit Cit class is talking about that very topic this week. Book reviews are extremely important–especially book reviews by book lovers and writers who understand the craft.
Indeed, Robin Becker at Penn State has an entire class on book reviewing because “my own experience had led me to book reviewing. Years ago, just as my first book entered production, I asked a more experienced poet how to get my book reviewed. She replied, ‘Review other people’s work. That way, you participate in the conversation.'”
As citizens of the literary world, we should participate in the conversation about books by reviewing books and helping along other authors who are just getting started.
Sure, review the latest Stephen King if you want, but it will be a great help to another fledgling writer if you discover and love his or her book and write a well-crafted review. Post it on your blog, sell it to a magazine where it might fit, offer it to a newspaper in the town where the author will be doing a reading. Follow up with an interview and do the same thing.
But maybe, like me, you wonder how to craft a good book review. Well, here’s some help.
I’m new to this, so I come to the topic eager to learn. Our class website featured an interview with David Walton, author and prolific book reviewer, who offered his advice on writing book reviews. So I am passing along what I’m learning to you.
I love the pie chart included there; further detail about each category on that pie chart is here so that you understand what plot synopsis (35%), critical analysis (25%), showing off (20%), providing context (10%), and quoting from the text (10%) mean in the context of a book review.
I also discovered that there is a lot of conversation happening in the literary world regarding book reviews. I think I’ve stayed away because I thought: (a) I’m not high profile enough to write in the New York Times book review column, (b) I don’t know how to write a review, and (c) I don’t even want to comment on Amazon because isn’t that just people who either like or dislike the author or the topic and really write nothing about the quality of the book? (Charles Baxter calls this “Owl Criticism”: I don’t like owls; this book is about owls; I don’t like this book.) Indeed, many publishers are vetting their book reviewers to make sure they’re legit.
Well meanwhile, over at Amazon, there’s been plenty of conversation about fake reviews, with Amazon actually pulling down many suspect ones. (For help in writing one of those short Amazon reviews, check out this post.)
So what does that mean for those of us just getting started?
First, read the book.
Second, understand the craft and study the book well enough to be able to see what the writer is doing as a writer.
Charles Baxter’s “Owl Criticism” post puts it this way, “A reviewer is entitled to any opinion at all, but he or she earns that opinion based on a description and a judicious citation of evidence. . . . Is it too much to ask of a reviewer that he should know what he’s talking about?” He goes on:
The marks of a trustworthy review, therefore, have a kind of doubleness: the reviewer manages to assert somehow that the book under discussion is of some importance for one reason or another; and second, a good review provides a formal description of the book’s properties, so that you could reconstruct it from the reviewer’s sketch of it. This description is not the same as a plot summary, although a plot summary may figure into it. What a formal description does is to show what a book is about in relation to the form in which the subject matter has been shaped or located. In order to write such a review, let’s say of a novel, you have to have a basic idea of how novels are constructed; you have to have the technical knowledge that allows you to stand back from the book and to say how a book is put together. By these criteria, quite a few book reviews are worthless.
Los Angeles Times book critic, David Ulin, discusses the importance of well-crafted reviews:
Criticism matters — not because of how many people read it, or whether they agree or disagree with it, but because it is a way of engaging with literature. . . .
Books can stir this range of emotions also, which is why the act of criticism can be so hard. It’s not just about opinion but engagement, the sense of hope, of anticipation with which we come to a book, and the ideas, the feelings, with which we walk away from it, even, or especially, if they are not what we expect.
For me, this is how I know I’m doing my job: not by whether I like a book or don’t (whatever that means), but by what I learn. When I’m reading and writing well, books open up before me; often, they turn my preconceptions around. They make me think — not just about the flow of this text, but also about the flow of all texts: the different texts by this particular author, the different texts that I have read. I have, in other words, to confront myself, to figure out what I think, and then like all writers, to follow that line to its logical conclusion, for good or for ill.
For us writers, it’s a part of our craft to learn to write a good book review. It’s an art form. It keeps us reading. It allows us to learn from one another. It connects us in this literary world. It allows us to share good books with one another.
It helps us be good literary citizens.