I enjoy reading reviews, especially book reviews of course, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be something I’ve already read or even intend to read. And most of you will know I also enjoy writing reviews, and therefore have always tried to keep a few pointers in mind as advice for myself.
A recent query in Quora, the question-and-answer website, got me trying to fill out the details of those pointers, for my own sake as well as for other interested folk. The question was, What are the things to keep in mind when reviewing? Here’s my edited answer, for what it’s worth.
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When reviewing books I start with the audience: who is it for? For me as the reviewer? Or some ideal reader of the review? Or both? My thinking is, if the review is for the writer only, a sort of aide-mémoire, then it doesn’t really matter what or how you write — one-liner, notes, star system — so long as you know what you’d be looking for when you come to see it again, or if you’re just trying to fix book particulars in your mind.
But if it’s for A N Other then I try to think what they’re looking for when they come across a review.
1. Information. They’ll want to know publication details — author, title, publisher, date, maybe (depending on the platform) even price. They’ll want to know if it’s a collection of short stories, a novella, its genre, what age group it’s aimed at, and so on. They’ll want a gist of what it’s about, preferably without spoilers (unless you’re writing an academic study, in which case anything goes) but be warned: not every fiction comes with a pat solution to whodunit, a happy ending, even a conclusion, so sometimes there’s nothing to spoil.
2. Elucidation. Most readers will want to know “What’s in it for me?” In other words, what will motivate me to pick this title up? Is it witty? Is it well-written? What kind of literary techniques are employed, such as stream of consciousness, unreliable narrator, present historic, epistolary? Upon the answers to questions like these will depend whether the potential reader trusts the book will provide what they want or expect — a good read, a ‘difficult’ read, an unexpected style, uncomfortable subject matter or plain language.
3. Entertainment. But if you’ve provided the info and some enlightenment the third ingredient to bear in mind in a book review is, Will the reader want to finish my review after they start, or will they give up because the grammar is a stumbling block, the arguments are badly supported or the writing is bland? That is, is the review itself worth reading? Because, when it comes down to it, we go to most writing — books, magazine articles, blogs — because we want to be entertained, with humour or with insight; and if we’re not, well, we tend to walk away.
4. Opinion. Most reviews seem to hinge on a star system, don’t they? But that’s not the same as a review. Nor are bald opinions of a book — “Meh,” for example — in any way informative, elucidating or entertaining, unless you rate that person’s judgement implicitly. Personally, I can usually tell from the writing what a good reviewer thinks about a book without them needing to say “I like this” or “I hate this”.
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This was the gist of my thinking and I can’t now help wondering, Does it fulfill its own criteria? How would — how will — this short piece itself be received? Will it get a sprinkling of stars or ‘likes’? Will it be adjudged to offer poorly expressed thoughts? Serious but not entertaining enough? Awesome! or, more likely, Meh? And if there are any comments to this post and I responded to them, would those responses then be reviews of reviews of my views on the art of reviewing?
If or when you review books what do you keep in mind? Do you just go with your gut feelings or do you structure what you write? Or perhaps you do both: reviewing is so second nature to you because you no longer need to think about organising what you say. Maybe you have your own bugbears about other reviewers’ styles of critiquing books — if so, I’d like to hear from you!