On Reviewing Books

My buddy Joe recently asked me about my process for reviewing books, how I approach it and go about doing it. (I have done reviews for a few magazines and newspapers, but these days I mostly review for Kyoto Journal.) I figured I might as well talk about it here, since it may interest others.

I suppose is “the usual,” ie. this kind of a four-paragraph thing:

  1. plot summary
  2. positives
  3. negatives
  4. overall impression

Do I do this? Well, the structure, yeah, sort of. But, no, not really. I have done it, and occasionally I do revert to it when I really am underwhelmed by a book.

But that’s not really what I think of as worthwhile book reviewing… or at least, not the sort of thing I want to do. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by my training as an English major, but I usually want to try to express something meaningful and insightful about the book I’m reviewing that maybe other readers mightn’t notice, or maybe–just maybe–even the author might glean some new perspective on his or her work. I’m sure I don’t always achieve that, and it’s especially hard when discussing short story collections, where there’s just too much to discuss, but that’s what I aim for, and I don’t find that the above structure is particularly conducive to producing or expressing such insights.

So instead, what I often try to do is something more along these lines:

  1. Situate the text in terms of its genre. Mainstream books have genres too, like the expat novel, or life-writing, or Asian-American Lit, or family narratives, or whatever. Genres are marketing tools, sure, but they’re also frameworks and contexts and procedural methodologies for thinking about stories and characters: authors use them, react against them, subvert them, or live as prisoners to them, and their work is always situated in some form of genre, even if its a purely private, idiosyncratic genre (for the best writers tend to build their own canon, or make their own genre history). Considering the text in terms of comparable texts — within its apparent genre, and across genre lines — can be useful. (For example, my comparison of Krys Lee’s work to Barbara Gowdy’s the other day.) Usually it’s possible to include just enough detail about the book to give the reader a sense of what the book’s about… because “what the book’s about” often serves to help define the genre(s) in which it is situated.
  2. Talk about what the book is about. I don’t mean plot–plot summaries are largely pointless, I think, and prospective readers are usually much better-served by some brief explanation of who the major character or characters are, and what their most central story problems are, as long as this doesn’t give anything away. What I mean, when I say “what the book is about,” is themes, idées fixes, threads that run through texts, possibly unintended meanings or resonances that ripple through the book, and–if possible–connections between these and the author’s earlier works, if you know enough to make those connections, or to other words within the apparent genre (or across genre lines). They can help us narrow in on what an author is doing, as well as why the book might matter or not matter to a given reader or a given audience. Note that sometimes this is the part that takes the most reflection: books aren’t always as open as the proverbial “open book,” and often the more complex and thoughtful a book is, the harder it can be to nail down quite that it’s “about” in that larger, more philosophical and thematic sense.
“The Old Bookseller”: Paris (ca.1920).
  1. Talk about the positives, even if it’s not easy. Reading a book is a subjective experience, at least to some degree. I might despise a book that many people like. Worse, I might even just be underwhelmed by a book that many people adore. While there are objective aspects to books–I think there are standards we can establish in terms of the quality of craft evident in a text, for example–I don’t think book reviews necessarily should be written under the thrall of a reviewer’s idiosyncratic reaction. (Maybe when you’re ranting on your blog, but certainly not in a book review.) Unless the book is absolute and utter dreck, there are positives. Even when it is dreck, there are probably some positives. Sometimes it’s worth looking at a popular-but-bad book and asking, “What is it that people are responding to here?” It may be that people like bad texts because they’re stupid, but more often it’s because something that looks like a flaw to you, looks like a feature to someone else. That, I think, is worth noting, but I’ll confess I also arrived at this practice because, given how hard it is to write a book, it feels mean-spirited not to point out positives. But you can also mention them in a way that makes clear whether they made the book worthwhile to you, or merely bearable. You can mention positives in a way that signals, “I didn’t really like the book, but maybe it’s just me.”
  2. Talk about the negatives, within reason and to a purpose. You can cushion the mentioning of flaws, as I sometimes do, by noting the possibility of idiosyncracy in your own reaction, or you can be blunt about them. But you are obligated to speak of the negatives, because you are a reviewer, and because people are supposed to take your opinion seriously. Pulling punches is not the done thing. Still, it’s important to point to why those negatives are a problem, and what the flaws actually are. As I’ve learned over many years of creative writing crit groups, often readers are good at figuring out there’s something wrong with a text, but terrible at pinpointing what it is that’s wrong with it or how it could be fixed.1 But the reviewer’s job is to talk about the book intelligently. Having some mastery of the genre, a certain amount of literary acumen, and a certain introspective intelligence are all necessary… but so is a certain degree of humility, whereby you realize you might be wrong about whatever you claim. Ultimately, it can be rather unfair to wish the author had written another book… unless there’s some compelling reason why the author really ought to have written that other book.2 It is important to note, however: you don’t always have to talk about the negatives. Sometimes the negatives dovetail with the positives, or are precisely what enables the positives: sometimes even the flaws of a book are actually, on another level, features. And of course, every book is flawed in some way, but one isn’t obligated to dwell on this, or seek out causes for offense.[3. Every person is flawed, but you don’t introduce people by noting their good points and their flaws: “Hi, this is my friend Danny, he’s an engineer and has a great job and is a really trustworthy guy, but he sucks with women and I’m pretty sure he’s never actually dated a real live person.”] Some books are flawed in ways that don’t at all matter; many are flawed in ways that are inextricably linked to why they work; and some are flawed in ways that bug you, but probably won’t bug others.[4. I tripped hard on a throwaway line in a book nominated for a prominent award lately, where a famous jazz musician was mentioned in passing, presumably to demonstrate a certain cultural/historical awareness and class cachet for a group of characters. The thing is, the jazz musician was described (by the omniscient narrator) as playing a solo on the wrong instrument–an instrument so unlike the one he really played that it’d be comparable to see someone describe B.B. King as a famous violinist–which sort jeopardized the signification, and rather undercut the impression it was supposed to give me of the characters. This definitely threw me out of the story… but it got past the alpha and beta-readers, the editor, and the proofreader, and I’ll guess maybe one in five thousand readers–maybe one in ten-thousand–would even notice the gaffe. Well, presumably, though I was reading an ARC, and maybe it got fixed in the final edit. Who knows? Either way, this is not something you mention in a formal book review, even if it’s a matter of facts and research and authenticity, rather than mere idiosyncracy on the reader’s part.]
“The Bookworm” (1850) by Carl Spitzweg (1808-1885).
  1. Discuss the overall effect of the book upon you, without universalizing it. You should also present your own reaction to the book, even if not merely the idiosyncratic one. How did you feel about it–and why? What do you think others with tastes and sensibilities like yours, or unlike yours, might make of it? Is the book worth the money that you likely didn’t pay for it? To whom would you recommend it, and who would you warn away from it? Part of your job, as a reviewer, is to help people curate the shelving of their lives; your are a helpful voice that cuts through the storms of information overload. Note that, if you’ve done a good job on #1-4, you will often have also covered #5 along the way, at least implicitly. But it’s also important to share your enthusiasm, or your frustration, explicitly to some degree. People want to know whether the book excited you, because you’re a reviewer: part of your job is to feel something about the books, even if it’s just frustration that the book failed to make you feel anything at all. I find intellectual responses tend to be more useful to others than emotional ones, mind.

Usually, I go through these points in this rough order, through sometimes I’ll mix it up a bit. (Occasionally, I’ll start with negatives and the proceed to much stronger positives; sometimes I’ll start with apparent positives, then negatives, and then the genre situating, as a comment on both. It just depends.

(Above painting by Giuseppe Crespi, 1665 -1737)
(“Bookshelves” (ca. 1725) by Giuseppe Crespi, 1665 -1737)

I won’t say this is the only way to review books–not by a long shot–but this kind of meditative unpacking of the book in context is what works for me. I don’t always manage it, and it’s somewhere in between reviewing and criticism as most people define it, but I like the spot where I try to aim for. I try very hard to be compassionate to the author, because writing is hard and because you don’t often achieve much by flinging crap at other people’s work… though sometimes, one must simply be frank and call a bad book a bad book. But in a review, you have to explain what makes the book bad, or, well, not worth the reader’s time. Your own feelings aren’t enough. You must be willing to serve a purpose, for the reader, just as the author must.

That is, on some level you must submit before the same stone idols as you expect the author of the book to have done. You may love a book, but there is no room for self-indulgence. You must be as unstintingly critical about your own idiosyncracy as you are about the book’s flaws, and that’s doubly true when you love a book. It’s often easy to explain why a book was unpleasant to read; it’s sometimes very difficult (or at least, more demanding work) to give an intelligent accounting of why a book was wonderful to read.

Now I’m curious about how others think about reviewing. I see reviews and know how others do it, at least some others. I see (especially in SFF) a fair amount of really idiosyncratic reviewing, too, even in prominent places. But I wonder how people think about reviewing: what they believe the task entails, why they prioritize one way or another, what they try to include, what they avoid, what issues they have with how others review, what purpose they believe they’re serving, and how they structure things.

That’s your cue, dear readers: how do you do it, or what do you tend to appreciate in a review?

  1. This is true so often that I usually tell my students, and myself, to carefully separate symptoms from diagnosis and prescriptions in critical feedback on creative work: most readers and fellow writers are much better at noticing when something is off than at suggesting usefully what it is that’s off, much less how to fix it.

  2. The Korean Popular Culture Reader, which I discussed a few months ago, stands out in my mind as an example of a book that ought to have been very different than it was, for compelling academic and scholarly reasons.

3 thoughts on “On Reviewing Books

  1. Agreed about the value of a review that helps readers understand a book at a deeper level. In addition, I try to write my reviews in such a way that the readers (or viewers or whatever) might better know whether they will like a work.

  2. Hrm. Maybe I truncated that previous thought too much. Just to be clear … what I meant by helping readers better guess their reactions to a work was in contrast to just talking about my opinions. It was just a small variation on your idea of adding to a potential reader’s takeaway. I hope that makes sense.

    1. The clarification helps, yeah. (It kinda does look like sarcasm otherwise, ha.)

      Yeah, the question of whether readers/viewers might like the work is one I do consider, but I usually try to convey that more implicitly… they should pick up the sense of whether this is the kind of book that might appeal to them, without me telling them in so many words… in part because I don’t like feeling like a shill.

      Also, as a footnote to all of the above… It’s typical that one runs into the perfect quote for a post hours after posting it, but here’s Milan Kundera in 1988 (in The Art of the Novel, trans. Linda Asher, though that’s not where I ran across it):

      “… every novelist’s work contains an implicit vision of the history of the novel, an idea of what the novel [as a form] is.”

      I think reviews also so this, albeit by necessity even more elliptically. (And you can also substitute “genre” for “novel” in there, for most kinds of genre fiction, and it works just as well.)

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