I’ve been in reviewer overload lately, reading, taking notes, and penning reviews for the next issue of Black Gate. But, more than that, I’ve also been coordinating our crop of reviewers this time out, and thinking in terms of what exactly it is that ought to be in the review section of the magazine, not just in the reviews I put up on my own website. Having done over 50 reviews in the last year and a half or so, I think I’ve learned a few things, and I’d like to share my thoughts on what a good review should consist of. And at the end of this essay I’ll also offer some practical advice to anyone that wants to become a web reviewer themselves and share the reasons behind just why someone would want to take the time to review a book in the first place.
The first distinction we need to make is between a book review and a book report. Reviews are critiques that take a lot of factors into consideration and demand a certain level of knowledge and discernment from the reviewer. Book reports are those bland plot summaries you used to have to write in school to prove to the teacher you actually did your assigned reading. I’ve seen so-called reviewers whose work falls squarely into the later category but, aside from generating web content for google, such work holds little real value.
What makes a review valuable? Broadly speaking there are two types of readers for a book review — those who want to know if the book being reviewed is something they want to read, and those who may or may not have read the book but wish to primarily be entertained and informed by the review. In the later category are readers who want to know if someone shares their opinion of a book, and those simply curious as to how the book fits into the larger world of fiction and ideas. Reviews need to satisfy both sets of readers.
It is in satisfying the first group of readers, those who want to know if the reviewed book is for them, that a book review distinguishes itself from a critical essay. A critical essay assumes familiarity with the work in question — a book review assumes the opposite. Here is where the elements of the book report find their way in the review, for some measure of plot, character, and setting must be described in the review itself. Such reportage is not, however, the primary purpose of the review — rather they are the foundation for what is really being communicated, which in the reviewer’s opinion about the book.
In reporting the basic elements of the plot, the reviewer must take care to avoid spoilers. Anything beyond about a quarter or third of the book should really be considered off-limits to anything but the most general sketching-in — and even big surprises on page one should be handled carefully. Report only those items that convey enough about the story to support the critical elements of the review and whet the reader’s appetite — remember, a book review is not about proving you read the book, as it’s assumed that you have (you have, right?).
The primary element of a book review, then, comes down to the reviewer’s opinion of the book itself. Sometimes this opinion is expressed in neutral terms, and sometimes in personal terms, and it is important to distinguish which is which. The difference arises when one is referring to an absolute standard of judgment versus a subjective one — and this is perhaps the biggest gray area, and perhaps the most reliant on instinct, in any sort of critical endeavor. Is the novel’s uneven pace an example of a failure in pacing for this kind of story, or your own impatience with the book? Is the author’s baroque style purple prose, or just something you aren’t in the mood for? Does the novel fail on points of characterization, setting, or theme — or is it just not the novel you thought you were getting when you looked at the cover?
There are elements of story that fall squarely in the ‘absolute standard’ category, namely failures of logic and other inconsistencies in the narrative structure of the book. However, such failings themselves require a certain subjective handling — does Chandler’s forgetting the chauffeur really ruin The Big Sleep? Whenever evaluating failures and success in a book it is important to keep foremost in mind the totality of the book itself — if it is successful despite its flaws, if it creates a sense of immersion and believability despite errors or mistakes or uneven execution, be sure that the overall tenor of the review reflects that. At base, it always needs to be clear from the reviewer’s tone and focus if the book falls on the plus or minus side of the scale.
A further notion is the idea of author intent. Does the author intend his hilarious book to be a sober and serious drama? Is this ponderous doorstop billed as light reading? Not only must a book’s success or failure be weighed against intentions, but the reviewer must engage with the book differently depending upon its purpose. The reviewer that opens a media-tie-novel with the expectation of encountering deep philosophies and then slams the book as ‘mere entertainment’, or comments on how boring a literary novel is because it lacks the breathless action he was inexplicably hoping for, makes the mistake of projecting their own unrealistic expectations upon the novel. Books must be evaluated on their own terms, and determining just what one is reading before the book is opened is an important skill for any reviewer.
And just as books should be judged on the terms they set for themselves, they must also be evaluated in the context of other related works. If the book is part of a series, the reviewer needs to judge its place in the series, and its relative success or failure in comparison to preceding volumes. So too should its relationship to the larger genre it finds itself in be considered — though with the caveat that a good, concise review is not an exercise in comparative criticism. A book’s place within the genre is perhaps more of a background thing — useful for shorthand (ie. ‘in a story reminiscent of George R. R. Martin’), criticism (‘derivative of Robert E. Howard, but without the intensity’), and in noting an overall phenomenon or trend (‘yet another cynical, gritty fantasy in the vein of recent offering by authors such as Abercrombie and Morgan’).
Above all, reviews are entertainment. For every person sincerely interested in advice on whether or not to read the book being reviewed, there are many others who will read the review for entertainment and curiosity about the book and its place in the genre. Writing to satisfy both sets of readers, and working to keep both the content and style of one’s reviews compelling, is the primary ingredient to reviewer success.
Finally, a brief word on becoming a reviewer, at least online. For the complete beginner, someone without a single review to their name, there are many websites and online magazines that need reviews of material — books, movies, games, etc. Without some sort of writing sample these may be difficult gigs to land, so the simplest thing to do is to start a review blog (like mine!), which can be done on free blogsites such a blogger or wordpress.com. Review the books that interest you — preferably some that are new as well — and do the best job that you can on them. Create a directory on your page and link to each review, and think of the whole thing as a kind of online resume for yourself as reviewer. If you write well enough you can openly solicit other review sites, ezines, and even print magazines for review material, and link to an example of your reviews as proof of your skill. If you grow your website and keep adding to your review content, you may even be contacted by authors, publicists, and representatives of the publishers themselves and offered review copies. While some sites and magazines will pay for reviews, the vast majority offer nothing more than a free book — so, if you are interested in reviewing as a way to make extra money, you may want to think again.
So, why review? For professional reasons, reviewing is another way to get your name in front of readers. Reviews can drive traffic to your website, and also be the content at the heart of an author site that gives readers a reason to visit in the first place (or had you thought they really cared about how many words you wrote today?). Reviews can give you contacts, whether with editors, fans, or the authors themselves. But, above all, reviewing is a way to engage with books in a more alert, more critical, and more substantial way. When I think over the last few years, the books I remember best are the ones I reviewed — and not only have I retained more from those books, but I’ve understood them better as well. The act of taking notes, of thinking and evaluating, and of then actively writing about a book, is a way to take one’s reading to another level — and for book lovers, what could be a greater joy than that?
BILL WARD is a genre writer, editor, and blogger wanted across the Outer Colonies for crimes against the written word. His fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, as well as gaming supplements and websites. He is a Contributing Editor and reviewer for Black Gate Magazine, and 423rd in line for the throne of Lost Lemuria. Read more at BILL’s blog, DEEP DOWN GENRE HOUND.