Sunday, 1 August 2010

Writing Book Reviews

Why review?

It's not easy being a critic - you might be the first person ever to read a work which might be a masterpiece or a mess. But someone has to do it for the sake of literary standards. The signs are that criticism isn't all it used to be.

  • In an April 2005 Guardian piece, Paul Farley said that his generation (those born in the sixties) got 'marketing not criticism'.
  • Amanda Craig (MsLexia) feels that "the popularity of weblogs and reading groups springs in part from the distrust many readers feel for literary critics".
  • Robert Fogarty in The New York Sun (June 29th 2007) wrote "The collapse of the book reviewing structure is emblematic of the technological and cultural changes that have occurred in America over the last couple of decades. These changes have led the National Book Critics Circle to launch an initiative to save book reviewing as a genre".
  • Bruce Bawer wrote "On the American poetry scene these days, the only thing rarer than a fine poem is a negative review."
  • In "Columbia Journalism Review" (Sept / Oct 2007 issue) Steve Wasserman (ex L.A. Times book review editor) wrote "Over the past year, and with alarming speed, newspapers across the country have been cutting back their book coverage and, in some instances, abandoning the beat entirely."
  • In 1999, Jay Parini in "The Chronicle of Higher Education" wrote about the state of contemporary newspaper book reviewing - "Evaluating books has fallen to ordinary, usually obscure, reviewers ... Too often, the apparent slightness of the review leads inexperienced reviewers into swamps of self-indulgence from which they rarely emerge with glory."

In this age of hype and puffs we need more quality reviews, and more people reading reviews. We also need more reviewers. Perhaps you've never thought of writing reviews, or don't know how, or don't know the markets. I think review writing is good for you. Why?

  • free books!
  • makes you read more carefully
  • helps you assess your own work more critically
  • helps you get friendly with editors so that they're more likely to accept your stories and poems.

I think reviews are an important and neglected literary genre - an art in its own right. In the States this is recognised in the form of the annual Randall Jarrell Award which gives $10,000 for poetry criticism that is "intelligent and learned, as well as lively and enjoyable to read".

But there are minus points too

  • "Burdensome artistically, exhausting over time ... poetry reviewing is an enterprise only a few people ever do credibly or well, and then rarely for long periods", Mary Kinzie, "Poetry", January 2004.
  • There's a view that if you can't write, you become a critic - "A critic is a man who knows the way but can't drive the car." - Ken Tynan. "The greater part of critics are parasites, who, if nothing had been written, would find nothing to write." - JB Priestley (quotes collected by stas wnukowski)
  • Authors are liable to seek revenge. Lord Archer sends reviewers letters via his lawyers. Anthony Burgess put a reviewer into his next novel on a "Wanted" poster. Chrichton in "State of Fear" put a reviewer in as a character with small genetals. Jeanette Winterson has been known phone reviewers and to turn up late at night to berate them.
  • Reviews can kill! Well, Byron thought so. He became obsessed by the idea that Keats died from a burst blood vessel after receiving a savage review in "The Quarterly". Would you want to live with Keats' death on your conscience? Even if reviews don't kill, they can hurt. Writers are sensitive people. In The Anglo-Welsh Review, Winter 1967, Roland Mathias wrote "apart from a tendency to look back in pretty general terms, and to muse on the night or the wind or lost friends, he has nothing very much to say - all is grandiose, vague and over-spoken". He says some kinder things later on, but what he said was enough to stop the poet in question (a friend of mine) writing for decades.
  • Not everyone likes reviewers.
    • Artists don't like them: "Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamp-post how it feels about dogs." - Christopher Hampton. "If I had listened to the critics I'd have died drunk in the gutter." - Chekhov. "I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review before me. In a moment it will be behind me." - Max Reger
    • Some Publishers don't rate them. Some publishers say they only push hardbacks for review because they want quotes to print on the paperback cover. Steve Wasserman says that "their own marketing surveys consistently show that most people who buy books do so not on the basis of any review they read, nor ad they've seen, but upon word of mouth. What's worse is that most people who buy books, like most people who watch movies, don't read reviews at all."
    • Some Booksellers don't like them. Scott Pack (Waterstone's buying supremo) writing in "The Bookseller" thought that broadsheet book pages were dull, out of date, lacking diversity and not much good for selling books.
    • Not all Reviewers like them! Amanda Craig in a recent MsLexia wrote "When I first became a published novelist in 1990, I did not realized [sic] just how mired with politics and corruption the reviewing business was". She pointed out that peer pressure's strong - "There are only about 100 regular reviewers for the national press, and sooner or later we all meet" - and that "Men review, and are reviewed, differently ... Women only get to review books by other women - or, once in a while, gay men".

Writing reviews

But let's not dwell on the downside. Reviews can be good to write, good to read, and good for culture in general. Before we look at writing reviews, I think we should consider the readers. Do you read reviews? Why? What are reviews for?

  • so people can decide if the book's worth reading
  • to help the writer
  • to advertise books
  • to explain the book to the reader
  • to encourage people to buy books
  • to be a good read - after all, most of the audience will never read/see the reviewed item, they'll only read the review.

What should a review contain? Well, reviews can be short announcements or long analyses. Usually they contain the following information

  • publishing details
  • extracts
  • description of the plot (Some people will buy any novel set in ancient Rome, or anything involving orphans, etc)
  • description of style/genre
  • a judgement
  • description of target audience
  • background about the author and their previous works?
  • cultural context - if the book comes from Greece (say) perhaps the review should say something about the Greek literary scene?
I'd claim that a lot of this isn't difficult. Judgement may be, and it's difficult to be selective about what to say while remaining readable. What shouldn't a review do?
  • merely advertise - if a magazine is going to review a book they might contact the publisher asking if they'd like to advertise. Sometimes it's the publisher who makes first contact - "we'll give you a good review if you advertise".
  • give a false representation
  • be aimed at the wrong audience.
  • let the reviewer show off - though reviews shouldn't be boring, I don't think they should have too much fun at an author's expense.

Nasty Reviews

Savage reviews sell newspapers and make the critic (usually male) a feared - hence powerful - person. Rousseau wrote a poem called "Ode to Posterity". Voltaire said "I do not think this poem will reach its destination". Maybe Voltaire was right, but posterity sometimes has the last laugh

  • the book "appears to have been written by a perverted lunatic who has made a speciality of the literature of the latrine" (The Sporting Times, 1922 - of Ulysses)
  • "the work of a drunken savage" (Voltaire - of Hamlet)
  • "crazy, mystical metaphysics... the endless wilderness of dull, flat prosaic twaddle" (Macaulay - of Wordsworth)
  • "The phrenzy of the Poems was bad enough in its way; but it did not alarm us half so seriously as the calm, settled, imperturbable drivelling idiocy of Endymion. We hope, however, that in so young a person, and with a constitution originally so good, even now the disease is not utterly incurable." (Lockhart - of Keats (from Blackwood's))

Writing about the living takes some courage. Would you write these?

  • "The execution would embarrass a conscientious GCSE student: XXX teaches creative writing at the University of East Anglia" (Acumen May 2006, p.93)
  • "nothing could prepare us for the tendentiousness, the unjustified formlessness, the ghastliness, of Haddon's verse" (The Guardian, Nov 2005)

John Updike's first rule of reviewing was "Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt". It's not a rule that should always be followed, but ignoring it can lead to unfair criticism - a book for children should be judged as such.

Practical Problems

Given enough space, time and security, it's not so hard to write an informative, readable review. Many of the difficulties when review-writing are less to do with what to write than with personal and commercial pressures.

  • Space - Reviews must compete with other material for column inches. Often reviewers have to use shorthand ("Chandleresque", etc). It's a particular problem with poetry or short-story collections. In practise, the reviews editor is sent dozens of books. Often they'll send a bunch to a reviewer asking them to write about 3 of them in 300 words. This gives them the chance to pick a mixture of good and bad pieces, or pieces on a theme. The ability to find themes and similarities helps when trying to make a multi-work review flow. It's especially important when reviewing poetry/story collections.
  • Audience - Coupled with the space issue is that of your intended audience. As the space devoted to reviews in mainstream publications shrinks, the temptation to dumb-down and compete for attention strengthens, though can be resisted. Steve Wasserman wrote that he "wanted the Book Review to cover books the way the paper's excellent sports section covered the Dodgers and the Lakers: with a consummate respect for ordinary readers' deep knowledge and obvious passion for the games and characters who played them. ... Its editors neither condescended nor pandered to those of the paper's readers who didn't happen to love sports"
  • Balancing a personal response with an impersonal opinion
  • Spoilers - it can be hard to review whodunit plots
  • Having to review books you don't like (some major magazines don't give reviewers a choice). The writers can't defend themselves, so should you show restraint? Damn with faint praise?
  • Fear of being taken too seriously - You may think you're only giving your opinion. Others may think your views are more significant than that: "what right have you to say whether the book is good or bad?", they say. The question should be addressed to the Editor.
  • Fear of making enemies. Editors won't always check your work or back you up - they may enjoy a lively letters column. In the "London Review of Books", 22nd September 2005, Eric Griffiths (Trinity College, Cambridge) had a letter about Helen Vendler's review of his book on Dante. "Helen Vendler (LRB, 1 September) does not like the way I write; I can't blame her, there are days I don't like it myself. But there it is, we can't all have her style. I in my turn deplore the way she reads - Vendler fears that I will think her 'humourless and pedantic'. Let me assure her that nobody could accuse her of pedantry."


Who should write reviews? Usually only published poets write poetry reviews, but I don't think one needs to be a novelist to review novels - certainly one doesn't have to be a famous (or even good) novelist. Though children write reviews of children's books, parents usually do. Non-writers have some advantages when reviewing

  • They're not constrained by the genre they write in (SF authors aren't taken seriously when they review non-SF)
  • They needn't fear revenge from writer-reviewers. Herbert Leibowitz - editor of Parnassus for nearly thirty years - wrote "what I find perhaps even more distressing is the reluctance of poets to write honestly about their peers".
But it's an understandable reaction. W.G. Sebald said "I think it is totally wrong if writers review each other's books. I find that idiotic, Truly idiotic", (Pretext 7, 2003 p.22). So I think there's hope for us all. Remember, you needn't be beautiful to judge beauty competitions. Some US publications insist (contractually) that the reviewer has no strong connection with the author, but in specialist areas (and UK poetry) that distancing is hard to obtain.

But where are the outlets? Even a little literary magazine like Ambit gets over 1000 books a year to review, but very few of them get a mention. Newspapers give ever less space to poetry reviews. The situation's not so bad with novels. Options open to us include

  • Amazon (online bookseller)
  • Small magazines - editors say that good reviewers are rare, and that they burn out. "Acumen" even ran a regular reviews competition for a while (with free entry!) to find new talent. Reviews are mostly about poetry and genred prose. Note that most small mags want to encourage, so they tend not to publish slating reviews. "Staple" for example wants reviews that "focus on the work rather than an overt display of the reviewer's erudition and opinion" and are "generally positive, though absolutely not anodyne and ultimately will engage the reader enough to interest them in reading the whole book."
  • BBC Radio 5's book reviews on Monday afternoon let you give reviews live over the phone!
  • Rattle poetry magazine is prepared to send you a book if you send back a review. See their list of books available. Tarpaulin Sky do likewise

You might start with local, free publications. Note that many people offer their services as Film Reviewers. If you have a specialist subject, exploit it. As ever, one needs to study the market. Julie Eccleshare in "A Guide to the Harry Potter Novels" notes that "Reviews of children's books in the UK are rarely other than positive". Other markets may be different!

I'm told that it's common for would-be reviewers to offer their services, sending in examples of their work. Strangely, men do this much more than women do. I think editors want critics who are well read and have sound judgement. They want reviews that readers want to read even if they're not interested in buying books. And I suspect they prefer controversy to sitting on the fence. If you get poems/stories (and especially letters/articles) printed in magazines, there's a chance you'll be asked to review by the editor. If you put some reviews online you'll sometimes be offered books to review.

Note that magazines usually receive just one review copy, which the reviewer keeps, so the editor doesn't have a chance to check the reviews (in particular the accuracy of the quotes). So take care.

Gender might be an issue. David Wheatley pointed out that the Summer 2008 issue of Poetry Review contained reviews of 20 men's books and 21 by women. All 20 of the men's books were reviewed by men, and all 21 of the women's books were reviewed by women.

Responsibility and the Law

Some magazines (the TLS at times) publish anonymous reviews. This side-steps some of the problems faced by reviewers, but can also lead to irresponsible reviewing. One needs to be aware of the legal situation (e.g. the 1996 Defamation Act). Libel is the publication of a statement which exposes a person to:

  • Hatred, ridicule or contempt
  • or which causes him to be shunned or avoided
  • or which has a tendency to injure him in his office, trade or profession

in the estimation of right-thinking members of society generally. If you start writing about the author rather than their work, you may be straying into dangerous territory. Writing something that might damage the author's sales could be risky too. Authors tend not to take legal action (they know what happened to Whistler and Wilde) but there are exceptions. For example, Dan Moldea sued the New York Times for $10 million, claiming that a review damaged his reputation. He won, but the NYT successfully appealed.

Online Reviews

Books and Articles

  • "Writing Reviews", Carole Baldock, How To Books Ltd, 1996
  • "Are we being served?", Amanda Craig, Mslexia, Jul-Sep, 2005
  • "Critics, Ratings and Society : The Sociology of Reviews", Grant Blank, 2007 ("the first full-length study of reviews" - THES)
  • "Confessions of a Book Reviewer" (George Orwell) - "The best practice, it has always seemed to me, would be simply to ignore the great majority of books and to give very long reviews - 1,000 words is a bare minimum - to the few that seem to matter."
  • A.L. Kennedy's responses to reviews of her books
  • "Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America", Gail Pool, University of Missouri Press, 2007
  • "'Terrible Things': The In-Clubs of Poetry Criticism" - in Wolf 15, 2007
  • National Book Critics Circle (see their tips, their Blog and their )
  • "The Death of the Critic", Ronan McDonald, Continuum, 2008 (a plea for more expert, evaluative (academic?) critics)
  • The Future of Book Coverage (from The Millions)


  1. I think the key comment in this excellent article was the quote from Jay Parini. I’m always appalled by the space that magazines and journals devote to reviews. In many cases they’re not reviews, they’re notifications, nothing more and you have to go elsewhere to find out the details. And that elsewhere is inevitably online. But even there you have to be careful. I read a lot of online commentary on books and films. I use the word ‘commentary’ because that’s what they’re doing, passing a few comments and saying if they’d recommend it. Effectively it’s water cooler banter. And for some people that’s fine.

    Me, I’ve been posting a weekly book review for a good couple of years now. I aim at about 3000 words because I find I can’t say enough in less. Looking objectively at what I do you couldn’t call it a critique. I summarise as much of the plot as I can without including major spoilers and then say what I thought the author did well or air my reservations. I don’t give star ratings or anything like that. I’d hate for anything I wrote to be reduce to a number.

    My problem, and this is every reviewers problem, is time. I read and review one book a week and although that’s not a huge burden it is a burden. I’m supposed to present an informed and intelligent review after a single run through. With most of the popular fiction that’s fine but I find myself struggling with some of the literary titles because I’ve not given them time to settle and really what they need is a second read but I don’t have the time for that. I feel like a travel writer who gets driven around in a car at speed and is expected to describe a place based on that.

    I would agree that knowing I’m going to have to a) review and book and b) talk about it in the comments afterwards and sometime at length has made me a better reader. It has also broadened my reading. Before I started reviewing I’d never read a historical novel in my life for example and I mistakenly thought they were all historical romances. Now I have developed a growing respect for the amount of research these writers do.

    Why are reviews important? For me it’s a time thing. I rely totally on the Internet to tell me what’s going on in the literary world. I rarely visit bookshops anymore. Virtually every book I’ve bought in recent years has been because of something I’ve read, not necessarily a review, online. It is, for better or worse, the future and the sooner we get better at it the better for all of us.

  2. I’ve been posting a weekly book review for a good couple of years now. I aim at about 3000 words because I find I can’t say enough in less - I've liked those I've read. But they tend towards been essays/articles rather than reviews. I don't know where else they'd be published. "The Dark Horse" might give a poetry book this amount of coverage.
    Virtually every book I’ve bought in recent years has been because of something I’ve read, not necessarily a review, online - which chimes with what I've heard others say. Printed reviews seem to have little impact. Here's what the Shearsman editor recently wrote - "I used to advertise, but found that it had no impact on sales. In fact, when I cut advertising completely, sales went up by 25%. This suggests that the only kind of marketing that works is the targeted variety. Reviews generate very little sales, although a generous notice in the TLS will have an impact that is immediately noticeable. The same holds for Ron Silliman's blog."