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Writing Book Reviews — How and Why

Friday, October 16th, 2009 | Posted by Bill Ward

pile-of-books3I’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?
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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.

11 Comments »

  1. […] like MacArthur to the Philippines, sans corncob pipe, with a post all about book reviewing: Writing Book Reviews — How and Why. Since a great deal of my time lately has been going into reviews for the next issue of BG, and […]

    Pingback by The How and Why of Book Reviews โ€” Bill Ward - October 16, 2009 2:58 pm

  2. Great article! I’ve been dabbling in reveiwing on my website as well and it’s been a lot of fun. I used to write 170 word reviews for Library Journal…which was fun and forced me to try this style of analysis with very few words. I much prefer bloviating as long as I like on my own blog :)

    I completely agree with your final point about taking your reading to another level. Turns out my teachers were right…critcal thinking can become its own reward!

    Comment by dentonwriter - October 16, 2009 7:21 pm

  3. Thanks, Shedrick — 170 words! That’s a tight little review and I agree with you, I much prefer to bloviate ๐Ÿ˜‰

    I see you have a review of World War Z on your site, I’ll check it out (I’ve read the book, but I’m always curious to read reviews of books I’ve read).

    Comment by Bill Ward - October 17, 2009 9:46 am

  4. Speaking of the different kinds of people who are interested in reviews–I’ve been thinking recently of the mechanics of review distribution, and I’m finding it fascinating.

    If you think about it, a glowing review of a book in a reasonably-accessible market is actually a great way of familiarizing people with your name–quotes and blurbs can get pulled out and put onto inside pages or back covers, the review will get reposted on the author’s blog, and on the author’s friends’ blogs, and bounced around a lot.

    But that’s only a glowing review. A mediocre review is less likely to get passed along a mildly or extremely disparaging review even less likely–your good reviews will see more light, while your bad reviews will be read mostly by people who are already committed to reading the material in which the review is published.

    Unless, of course, the review is hilariously vicious, and passed around for purposes of schadenfreude.

    I don’t think there’s a point to all that, I was just puzzling over it–it seems like there might be a kind of social or professional pressure for reviewers to gush when they shouldn’t.

    Comment by braak - October 18, 2009 1:24 am

  5. Great post, Bill. I was intrigued that you hit the same conclusion I did after reviewing for nearly a decade at SF Site: “Above all, reviews are entertainment.”

    I think too many amateur reviewers secretly dream of becoming a CRITIC… someone like John Clute or Pauline Kael, individuals whose opinions can make or break a book. But “Criticism” and “Reviews” are too vastly different beasts, and you hit on the essential difference when you said criticism “assumes familiarity with the work in question.” For every reader who’s read the book, there are many dozens who haven’t… assuming otherwise will lose you readers, fast.

    Criticism most assuredly has a place in the genre – you can’t become a writer of any stature without first catching the attention of the best critics in the field, in places like THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF SCIENCE FICTION and LOCUS – but outlets like SF SITE and BLACK GATE confuse criticism with reviewing at our peril. We’re here to entertain, not lecture.

    I devoted my editorial in BG 13 to the ups and downs (mostly downs) of reviewing SF & Fantasy – Serial Distractions called it “a potent look at the seldom-revealed dark side of book reviewing.” That was one of the nicer things said about it. :)

    John

    Comment by John ONeill - October 19, 2009 12:05 am

  6. […] Over at the Black Gate Magazine website, a fellow named Bill Ward has put up an article about the difference between a book review, a book summary, and book criticism. ย There are some […]

    Pingback by On Reviewing « Threat Quality Press - October 19, 2009 12:07 pm

  7. […] Blackgate talks about the Hows and Whys of Writing Book Reviews. […]

    Pingback by The Great Geek Manual » Geek Media Round-Up: October 19, 2009 - October 19, 2009 11:01 pm

  8. […] working with Ward, and he is knowledgeable and intelligent. I highly recommend that ever reviewer read this essay. It is helpful and cogent. For me, it was also timely, as I have felt my reviews have lacked the […]

    Pingback by Bill Ward on the How and Why of Writing Book Reviews | Grasping for the Wind - October 21, 2009 6:47 pm

  9. I’m most impressed with that “fellow named Bill Ward”‘s nifty self-plug. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Comment by Jason M. Waltz - October 22, 2009 9:10 pm

  10. I didn’t write that Jason . . . not that I’m above that sort of thing.

    Thanks for all the links and comments so far, fellas.

    I thought your editorial on ‘blurbing’ in BG 13 was very illuminating, John — Chris’s link from ‘Threat Quality Press’ is another interesting look at the ‘meta’ level of book reviewing, how reviews get quaoted and passed around, how a lot fo reviewers realize that effusive praise is the way to get themselves noticed, etc.

    Comment by Bill Ward - October 22, 2009 9:48 pm

  11. […] discussion to an audience that I’m assuming hasn’t already read the material. As noted elsewhere here in the Black Gate blog, that’s a distinction between literary criticism, which assumes knowledge of the work and […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Short Fiction Review # 20: “Unbound” from GUD 4 - October 24, 2009 8:59 am


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