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August 3-9, 2003



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The Art and Craft of Book Reviewing

By

by Alvin C. Romer

 

With the plethora of books that are written, there's bound to be consternation between how books are reviewed, who should review them, and what constitutes a good book review. Authors are on notice hoping that their work is not castigated in the process, the victim of someone who may be rendering their opinion without understanding the rigors of putting thoughts to paper. As an independent book reviewer myself, I've heard and seen quite a bit of dialogue on this subject of late and will give you my opinion of what really should be inherent in a good book review, ect.

First and foremost, book reviewing should be fun and something that you want to do. You should do it striving to maintain a balanced view of a book's strengths and weaknesses for an overall judgment. Reviewing not only reinforces readers with books that are testaments of our time, but also contributes to the continuing conversation within the canon of letters. In saying this, one should endeavor to allow constructive criticism to become and art in how the craft of writing can be used to illustrate points, without low rating that which is reviewed.

Some reviews as we all know can be difficult, especially when the reviewer doesn't adhere to a certain set of rules or guidelines to insure the intent of literary criticism to maintain tact and diplomacy. If one understands the truism that all literary critiques are basically biased from the beginning, and can deftly ascertain how not to foster the illusion of excellence where none exists, then he/she will have learned the one mantra in becoming an excellent reviewer. Using honesty as the best policy often will go a long way to calling a spade a spade, and living with the choice. You don't want to do a disservice by affirming a point minus a true analysis and not staying as close to your credo or reviewing guidelines as possible.

It is with this understanding that I write whenever I assume the role of reviewer. Certain methods should prevail for instantaneous accountability. There will always be the good review vs. the bad review. I've always been puzzled and alarmed by assessments some reviewers have given books, and why. Measuring the excellence of a reviewer is just as important as the question asked above….but you still need to tell the reading audience what the book is about, what it can be compared with, and who, if anyone, it will appeal to. Your knowledge of the genre, wit, and personality is all-inclusive, so in asking what should a good review primarily do as a whole, or what exactly should it include, why not be concerned with the marks of an excellent reviewer? This is my assessment:

  • Fairness. Reviewers should be subjective as well as objective, in rendering an accurate representation of the book…even if they don't like it. Give reasons why you based your slant one way or the other.

  • Principle. Reviewers should employ a sense of integrity and admit their biases in the beginning; especially if there are serious conflicts of interest…in this case they should decline the review.

  • Authenticity. Reviewers need to give enough detail (without giving too much away) so that readers know what they are getting, and should back up all opinions with specific details from the book. Quotes are ideal in this situation to elicit reliability.

  • Structural Analysis. Reviewers should write with a flair that would be decidedly different from that which is already out there. Be unique, but be familiar enough with the subject or genre to compare the book to other works and assess its quality and/or accuracy with your own opinion.

  • Incitation. Reviewers need to understand the importance of expressing a good feeling as to why a book has a certain parasitic quality…an understanding even, of what the readers need to know. There should be no unpleasant surprises not otherwise uncovered by the reviewer.


Nowadays we don't have to rely on word of mouth being the primary news and review resource, nor can we place emphasis on gossip, rumor, and speculation. In an ideal world we SHOULD be able to place greater emphasis on our book reviewers to give us an inclination of what we should or should not be reading, or what's a good review as opposed to a bad one. I suppose from the perspective of an author or publisher, a good review could be said to be on which leads to increased sales. Such a review need not necessarily be a favorable or positive one, perhaps. Clearly, a positive review might lead to positive sales, but a negative one might as well also. Any review using this analogy can be attributed to a good review. Or could it?

What about a review that hurts sales? What about a review which makes a book sound dull, or which says it's a waste of money or time, and be advised against its purchase? Although such a review could be called a bad one, it can attribute a lot of power to the writing of one review (or reviewer). Seldom does it occur that one review can make such a difference. And it's still one person's view. Now, of course, if most or all of the reviews of a book result in depressed sales, then maybe that's a bad review, but perhaps in that case one should worry less about bad reviews and worry more about a bad book!

The point I'm illustrating here is that one can't distinguish purely on the basis of sales figures whether or not a review is bad. One could use all kinds of writing criteria to distinguish good from bad reviews. Poor grammar, incoherent writing, insults, questionable language….all of these could be part of a bad review, though clearly not exclusively part of a negative review. My personal thoughts on this will always have emphasis on whether the reviewer provokes a response from the reader. Good writing should always elicit a response. If I review your book, and make it paramount that you should buy it, then I would have done my job and rendered a good review.

The question has been asked too, should professionally written reviews be taken more seriously than personal reviews? I have mixed emotions about this, but would venture to say that paid reviewers should adhere to the same work ethic that an unpaid one is privy to. There can be circumstantial situations where it would be in the best interests that they slant a review to be political correct or adhere to status quo. When this is done, no one wins and it becomes a moot point.

There's too often the feeling that you can't necessarily trust them in cases like this. They may have axes to grind, or conflicts of interest. Sometimes, sadly to say, perfectly innocent books are misrepresented and shredded by the author's adversaries. Writers should ALWAYS care what is being said or reviewed about their work, be it by professional or personal reviewers. I've always felt that since reviews are opinionated, and that it's one person's view against another train of thought, one shouldn't be overly concerned as opposed to it being a consensus if multiple reviewers having the same opinion.

A review should stand on its own merits as long as all of the standards depicted above are included. My intent when reviewing is to establish trust with the reader by following the strict set of rules that I have that would make me accountable for what I write. In this, I don't want to criticize an author, but tell it like it should be told and with grace. I'm not interested in writing a wellspring of reviews based on quantity. Quality is what I strive for, and as long as I do this I'm sure the authors will know my name.