Welcome to Practical Notes, a new series on In the Classroom, in which we address various practical aspects of the writing world.
Writing book reviews is sometimes considered secondary to the process of “real” writing. It’s seen simply as commenting on and analyzing the creative work of others and not so much as a creative act in itself. I’d argue, however, that reviewing books is creative work, and also that it’s a vital component of the ecosystem of literature, publishing, and reading. In fact, I’d like to encourage all readers and writers to take it upon themselves to write reviews as a part of their daily life as writers, readers, and literary professionals. It’s just the right thing to do, as a literary citizen. And besides that, it’s fun.
To be sure, book reviews are not always seen in a positive light. As Sarah Fay points out in “Book Reviews: A Tortured History,” book reviews and the people who write them have long been a subject of scorn for both readers and writers. According to Fay, “lamenting the state of the book review has been the literary world’s favorite pastime ever since Edgar Allan Poe reviewed for Graham’s Magazine in the 1840s. From Henry James to Heidi Julavitis, writers seem to delight in publishing manifestos that outline the book review’s shortcomings and inadequacies.”
Despite its bad press, however, reviewing is valuable–and often selfless–work. It’s not glamorous, and, especially these days, it doesn’t earn you a lot of money. Occasionally it does pay, which is unusual enough in the publishing world. Yet even if the venue doesn’t pay, it can create and nurture literary culture – something that is, in our current, anti-intellectual climate, more important than ever.
In an era that doesn’t always value the act of spending time with a book, reviewing books is a vote for the importance of reading. Book reviews are not just a chance for someone to comment on a written work; they’re an opportunity to create a space for understanding and interrogating that work. A book doesn’t really come alive, after all, until someone reads it. And a book review, when done well, allows others in on what is normally a solitary and unseen process. Reviewing is reading writ large.
Ideally, a book review opens up a conversation about a book. It gives a frame of reference, a way of understanding the work. It also demonstrates the discursive process of reading, enacting that process publicly.
Read Other Reviews
The best way to learn the art of book reviewing is to read other reviews. The New York Times Review of Books is a good place to start, as well as the sections at the back of your favorite literary journals. Read book reviews regularly, and you’ll gradually get a sense of what kind of reviews you like, and how to go about developing your own style and approach.
Often, the reviews I like best are ones that offer both an understanding of how the book fits into the larger culture as well as specific, intriguing details from the book. A recent review in The New York Times of Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays, by J.W. McCormack, for instance, does just that. This review gives both an overview of Chee’s book and glimpses into its specificities: “Chee leavens his heaviest topics — the decimation of the gay community in the late 1980s and early ’90s, the repressed memory of sexual abuse that inspired “Edinburgh” — with charming episodes like his stint as a waiter at William and Pat Buckley’s Park Avenue maisonette, a job that prompted a crisis of conscience given Buckley’s infamous proposal to brand AIDS patients on their wrists and buttocks.” I like the cultural awareness that the review provides, the way it situates the book in the larger culture and also honors its specific intersections with that culture. This ability to summarize vast swathes of an entire work in a few detailed sentences is an important one for reviewers to cultivate.
Also look at a wide variety of reviews, including ones that are more personal in nature. These can read almost like essays in themselves. Brevity, for instance, emphasizes this kind of review. In my recent review of David Lazar’s I’ll Be Your Mirror: Essays and Aphorisms, for instance, I don’t just summarize Lazar’s text. I also talk about the reading process itself, and the way that the text interacted with my life and experiences. Other reviews for Brevity take this same tack.
“As someone whose only real social life is reading books, like Lazar’s, I loved spending time with him while reading this collection. It felt like hanging out with a dear friend—a friend who hums to himself, often digresses, and occasionally shouts frenetic revelations into the early-morning insomniac darkness, but dear nonetheless.”
Logan Scott Wells, in a review of Steven Church’s One With The Tiger, for example, begins with a narrative that’s just as compelling as his discussion of the book itself.
“I am sitting on the starboard aft of a Carnival Cruise Ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. It is a cool summer night in 2011, and the ocean breeze carves goosebumps into my skin. My arm is draped over the thick metal railing on the side of the ship, and I am staring down at the churning waters below. They are dark and bubbling, like a steady boil on a stove. The ship’s fluorescent lights bob up and down like luminescent sea creatures cresting through a wave. Their sloshing movement beckons me forward, and there is only one thought that consumes my brain.
I want to jump.”
Narrative begets narratives, and these personal stories in reviews can be rewarding both for the reader and the writer. They’re the clearest example of the ways, too, that book reviews can, themselves, be a form of creative nonfiction.
How to Write a Review
Begin by looking at the book itself – the publisher, the date, the cover. What does the book tell you? Read the author’s bio in the back, and do some searching online to discover whatever context you can. Who is this author? What else have they published? What can you glean about this publishing company? What is this book’s genre? How does it fit in with the culture at large?
After gathering some of that information from the book and the world surrounding it, start to read carefully, closely, with a pencil in hand. I find I have to annotate books that I’m going to review. I need to underline and mark in the margins and start the dialogue with the book and author right there in the process of reading. When I know I’m going to be reviewing a book, to be honest, I read it more closely than I might normally, paying attention to theme, to turns of phrase, to specific word choices. I’m looking at the book with a critical eye, but also an eye that’s trying to get to know the author behind the work towards placing this work in the context of what has been published around it. It’s an act of compassion and empathy, reading a book in this way.
For me, reading to review is a way into both the mind both of the writer and the minds of potential readers. Being a book reviewer involves straddling the worlds of writing and reading, and being a conduit between them.
After that initial close reading, I try to identify themes in the work, ideas that thread through it. Then, with all that material on hand, I’ll start freewriting my conversation with the book. Usually I begin with those themes I’ve identified, summarizing them and the book’s plot or narrative arc or image progression or overall argument, depending on the genre I’m reviewing. This stage is important, because it gives you a sense of what you’re dealing with. You’re telling the book’s story back to yourself. After this, you’ll want to start doing some close reading. Usually I start with the book’s beginning. Look at the first sentence — quote it, think about it, analyze it. Then look at the second. Do some explication of that beginning, thinking about how ties in with the themes you’ve identified. Then look at the middle of the book for another – perhaps random — passage you can analyze and explicate. What does this passage reveal about the book’s progression? How is it different from where the book began? How does this passage demonstrate something about the book’s purpose? Finally, look at the end – the last chapter, paragraph, or sentence. Like the beginning, the ending usually provides ample material to analyze, and it’s been chosen and crafted with care and concern for the book’s overall arc.
With all of this freewriting and explication on hand, you then will turn to the work of revising. At this point, think about the market – how many words does a particular publication want? What is its style? Some publications prefer objectivity in a book review, whereas others like a more personal approach, preferring the writer to include personal details and narrative. This is good time, too, to look at other reviews published by the publication, in order to get a sense of the style and tone that it prefers. Then dive back into your messy first draft and see what you can make of it. A lot of creativity goes into this stage, since it’s where you shape your review as a piece of its own. It will be indelibly linked the book you’re reviewing, certainly, but your review needs to be able to stand on its own two feet. This is the point where connections get made, meanings become clear, and your own argument and narrative begin to take shape. It’s a magical process, and when it goes well you’ll end up with a book review that reveals something both about the book and about yourself. This is your book review, your creation, your reading, and it’s a work that will stand on its own.
The art of book reviewing, like all other arts, is best learned by doing. There are many venues for book reviews, many opportunities to flex your reviewing muscles and develop your own style. If I have any advice for would-be book reviewers, it’s this: start doing it, and keep doing it throughout your life. Nothing less than the fate of reading and intelligent, empathetic literary conversation lies in your hands.
Fay, Sarah. “Book Reviews: A Tortured History.” TheAtlantic.com, 25 April 2012, www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/04/book-reviews-a-tortured-history/256301/
McCormack, J.W. Writing as Drag: Alexander Chee’s Essays Consider the Novelist’s Craft. Review of How To Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays, by Alexander Chee. The New York Times, 27 June 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/06/27/books/review/alexander-chee-how-to-write-an-autobiographical-novel.html
Wagner, Vivian. Review of I’ll Be Your Mirror: Essays and Aphorisms, by David Lazar. Brevity, 8 June 2018, http://brevitymag.com/book-reviews/a-review-of-david-lazars-ill-be-your-mirror-essays-aphorisms/
Wells, Logan Scott. Review of One With the Tiger, by Steven Church. Brevity, 22 June 2018, http://brevitymag.com/book-reviews/a-review-of-steven-churchs-one-with-the-tiger/
Vivian Wagner lives in New Concord, Ohio, where she’s an associate professor of English at Muskingum University. She’s the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music (Citadel-Kensington), and several poetry collections, including The Village (Aldrich Press-Kelsay Books), Curiosities(Unsolicited Press), and Raising (Clare Songbirds Publishing).