The Art of Reviewing

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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.

*  *  *  *  *

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”.

*  *  *  *  *

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!

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39 thoughts on “The Art of Reviewing

  1. My view of your review of reviewing is that it is very objective, so far as it can be. The problem is the one I mentioned in my response to your comment on my blog; i.e. The reader is always subjective according to many different factors. When choosing a book (a novel or non fiction) I would always read a random page or two to try and get an idea of whether I will be sympathetic to the style of writing. This of course is influenced by my circumstances at the time and it may be that even if I don’t like the feel of a book at one time, I may at another. I think the same goes to some extent for reading reviews. In the end everything is relative!

    1. I don’t consciously ‘play God’ when I’m reviewing — any overview I do can never cover all aspects of a novel, and my assessments, if any, are always personal without ever attempting to be universal. Reviewers are readers too — of course! — and as with you my response will vary according to mood, time available, when I come to it, if it’s a re-read, and so on.

      I suppose I need now to do a follow-up post on ‘The Purpose of Reviews: What’s their Point?’ *sigh*

  2. I only review books I either admire or that are interesting to me in some way – and that might be because they don’t quite work for me. For me it’s about working out my own reaction to the book in literary terms – what distinguishes it for me as a piece of creative writing, successful or otherwise. I’m not really bothered about entertaining readers of the review, but I do hope that it will make some of them think and, with any luck, respond with their own viewpoint, or disagree with me or offer a different interpretation.

    1. I suppose you fall into the category of Myself-as-Audience, and that I suppose is where I start too! It’s a bonus if blog readers are stimulated to think, possibly respond, maybe even be entertained. For me the ratio would be 65:35 in favour of me as audience, but undoubtedly it would be different for you or anyone else!

  3. When I tried to tot up the books I had read over a lifetime I found there were too many of which I had only a ghost of a recollection. I started writing summations (often more of my thoughts than necessarily of the book) in order to have something extra that fixed the book in memory. 90% of my ‘reviews’ are thus written purely for my future self. Several of your reviews have been so effective that I have bought and read the book.

    1. The ghost of a recollection haunts me too, Simon! My reviewing started with Arthurian fiction and non-fiction published in a small circulation journal, the titles often sent by publishers, and the core of the blog began with publishing these online. But it was always my intention to get back to general fiction which I’d neglected since my schooldays, and retirement from both teaching and editing that Arthurian journal gave me the opportunity.

      That preamble is just to mention that all my reviews are now a summation (to borrow your fine term) of what I’m currently reading, the reason being that I don’t have to stare guiltily at books taking up shelf space, unread and feeling unloved!

      By the way, I’m chuffed that some of my crits have been effective — though I note you don’t say whether the end results were worth it … Perhaps the fact you’re still swayed by my assessments is answer enough!

  4. Excellent post, once again. I only wish those cretins who submit ‘reviews’ to Amazon along the lines of: ‘* I bought it for my Dad but he hasn’t read it yet’, would read this before sullying the website (and authors’ reputations) with more of the same.

    1. Your heartfelt comment reminds me of why I only occasionally look at Amazon reviews: so many are utterly fatuous, and life’s too short. Mind you, if vox populi is unreliable, the opinions of some professional pundits make my blood, if not boil, then at least simmer.

      Anyway, glad you liked the post, Steve — worth giving the link to any reviewers you send your book too?! (No, not a hint, though …)

  5. What a thought-provoking post!

    I think I’m often interested in figuring out why a book works for me, or doesn’t, and writing helps me get there. It doesn’t stop there, of course. I want to know what worked or didn’t for another as a reader too.

    Then there’s the fact that it’s just fun to talk about books, especially ones that I felt deeply about in some way, and to hear from others if the work affected them in any way too!

    I think that’s the heart for me—the rest of it sort of comes together once I have started.

    1. Such a thoughtful response, Juhi, I’m pleased we both have the same curiosity about how books tick as well as the sheer delight in a good read. In the absence of a local book club that broadly shares the same tastes as me, the online book club that is the blogosphere does just as well if there are readers of your calibre and discernment happy to pitch in!

    2. This is the main reason I write reviews myself: I want to understand why I did or didn’t like a book, and forcing myself to put it into coherent words helps a lot.

      And yes, it turns out that the blogosphere is a great book club!

      1. It would be nice to think that by sharing reviews freely we’re somehow being altruistic but I suspect at heart it’s a naturally selfish impulse that drives us to make sense of and express our response to the work. But then having that dialogue afterwards is not just the icing on the cake but an essential ingredient in our enjoyment.

  6. I enjoyed this review of reviews and would give it a good review.
    As it happens, I have a post in the pipeline dealing with reactions and responses of the reviewed to reviews, which I hope you may find interesting.

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  8. This a very helpful way of thinking about the different parts/functions of a review, as I’ve never been that conscious of how I construct my own. I think that for me #2 is the most important and often the most elusive. I don’t expect all readers to share my opinion about a book, but I want to give them something out of my own experience that will help them decide whether they want to look into it for themselves. I often feel I’ve failed miserably, but the challenge fascinates me so I keep trying!

    1. I think we all have self-doubt, Lori, that our efforts are not quite up to the mark, maybe even far short of it, but the trick is to keep trying; I must say that I do enjoy your reviews because not only do you throw light on the story (and I don’t mean merely a bald summary of the plot, which makes up the bulk of poor reviews) but your opinions are so often nuanced and fairminded, which gives me huge confidence in your judgement.

  9. This is a great post, Chris. I don’t review books really, as you know. I don’t like reviews that merely say ‘awesome’ or ‘meh’ – I want someone to tell me how well the book works, its strengths and weaknesses etc and I know I’m incapable of that incisive thinking. ‘Meh’ is probably all I could manage myself!
    This should definitely be a Reviewing 101 mini course for Amazon and WordPress book reviewers!

    1. I’m sure you downplay your abilities, Lynn, but it comes down to what you feel your strengths and inclinations are. I’m glad however you approve of my suggestions, enough to think it should be a kind of primer for novice reviewers!

      I understand that young Americans are often taught a form of review-by-numbers that goes along the lines of My rating — Synopsis — What I like about it. To me this rarely involves any real analysis of language, style, structure or other aspects that give distinction to a work of literature, a sterile approach that occasionally even seems to linger into adulthood. That a work by Austen, say, should be afforded the same tone as a cliched run-of-the-mill YA novel seems to show little awareness of historical or other cultural contexts.

      1. This made me too think about students being taught to write a certain kind of rv. I did an online Coursera on Science Fiction & Fantasy in which we could if we wanted write short answers and evaluate others’ answers. After a while you could pretty much tell where the writer came from and whether their educational influence was British, European or American. And yes, the American participants did seem much more prescriptive.

        1. I’m not familiar with European reviewing (I suspect the little Roland Barthes I’ve read isn’t necessarily typical of general French criticism) so daren’t comment on that. As for the general run of dire US reviewing online, the uniformity of its godawfulness must poorly reflect on the country’s education system if it’s in any way symptomatic. As soon as I see the dread subheading My Rating I now tend to switch off mentally, however unfair that must be.

        2. PS When I say ‘dire US reviewing online’ I mean a subcategory of course, and no way do I castigate North American in general. Hope that’s clear! As for Antipodean reviewing, you may be better placed to comment on it than I am …

            1. A great tagline, Gert — if I may be so presumptuous in addressing you in the singular! — and a mission statement for us all; one indeed that very slyly references The Wind in the Willows, which can’t be bad!

            2. We quite often have a post called ‘Simply Messing Around In Books’ when we just want to prattle about this and that. It would be a good name for a blog, too. (I bags it, as we used to say at school to stop anyone else taking something).

      2. I suppose the issue for young reviewers is their lack of experience and knowledge. Surely, you can only examine a text in such detail after having read a lot of books by authors of the same period or genre and across a range of periods and genres and this can only come with time. And, apart from anything else, thinking critically whilst reading a novel is hard work and most people read to be entertained and most bloggers reviewers don’t see anything wrong in merely passing on their personal opinion.
        I could rattle on about the rise of vox populi, Twitter culture and how everyone’s opinion (no matter how ignorant or ill informed) is held to have equal value – but that would make me sound like a middle aged curmudgeon, so I’ll stop now 🙂

        1. All absolutely valid points, Lynn, because of course I agree with them! A few years ago I came across some school essays I’d written for A level English Literature and was both amused and saddened by the gaucheness, faux authoritative voice and ill-digested opinions. (For some reason I no longer have these ..) Of course I’m allowed to sound like a middle-aged curmudgeon, being at the far end of that category, but you must maintain your optimistic streak of humour, as befits your position on life’s timeline!

          1. I’m both glad and saddened by the fact I have none of my own teen scribblings – it would be interesting to see how I’ve changed and how I’ve stayed the same. It is astonishing how much we think we know at that age – and how little we realise we know as time passes. 🙂 And so far as age is concerned – fifty looms ever closer, so I feel I’ve earned the middle-aged curmudgeon crown and hope I shall happily wear it for many years to come. After which I shall assume the elderly curmudgeon coronet and enjoy being rude to young people!

  10. You’ve posed a difficult challenge for us, Chris, and I’m feeling like the reluctant student who moans at every assignment. But I’ll give it a go.

    My reviews tend in one of two directions: either a quick overview of plot, character, and amusing points, with a final one or two thumbs up (I rarely review books I don’t like); or a lengthy exploration of connections I made while reading. The latter is my preferred stance, because it’s more interesting for me to write about — and I hope equally more interesting for my readers.

    This latter approach is best for lengthy works that require more than one post, as I’m doing now with my current series of reviews. But it also seems apt for even shorter works, if only because it’s a way of individualizing my reviews. Anybody can say that Book X is great, or even why it’s great, and I recognize that it’s nearly impossible to say anything new about a book that’s been in the world for longer than a few days. My only claim to uniqueness is that I had a particular experience while reading Book X, an experience which only I can write about.

    After writing this, I’m forced to conclude that I’m writing for an audience of myself alone! Perhaps I should change my stance.

    As I hope happens with my reluctant students, I learned something from addressing your challenge, Chris. Thanks (I think).

    1. You’ve made some interesting points, Lizzie, which I very much welcome.

      First, I think mini-reviews are often what’s appropriate, an approach I’m occasionally encouraged to adopt to help clear my backlog of reviews (as Lory has enjoined me to do!); sadly, I find myself incapable of reining in my verbosity!

      Secondly, I tend not to read turkeys, but if perchance I do I feel no compunction in reporting my reaction: knowing why a book is mistaken or fails is as important as pointing out what is successful.

      3. ‘Lengthy explorations’ is often my preferred stance — Titus Groan for example, as Proust is currently for you — but the amount I write tends to correlate with how many inches thick the novel is!

      Lastly, I don’t want to see my approach as prescriptive, a plan to be rigidly adhered to; that way blandness and uniformity lie as much madness!

      I do feel your posts don’t get the attention they deserve, though sadly I don’t have a quick remedy for that.

  11. Good, interesting post!

    The only rule of thumb I really have is to avoid plot description as much as possible. A line or 2 suffices most of the time. I figure most of the time people reading my blog have already read about the plot elsewhere.

    As I said above, I like to write about why I liked or disliked a book, often with a focus on some of the more philosophical stances a book has. In doing so, I tend to tackle your number 2 and 4. After 70 reviews or so, it turns out that if I don’t like the stances, and/or if there are too many plot holes, I tend to dislike a book. I’ve noticed a lot of older scifi tends to suffer from it’s pulpy origins.

    Since a book or 20, I’m taking notes while I read. I feel that helps a lot when writing a review, and it’s good for finding appropriate quotes.

    The only fear I have is that I’ll end up repeating certain arguments, but I guess that’s unavoidable.

    1. Thanks very much, another thoughtful response and one I’m in agreement with!

      Too many online ‘reviews’ mostly consist of lengthy plot synopses — I wish the writers would look at the blurbs on the jackets or back covers as models for their own synopses: they give essential details while also tantalising and encouraging the potential reader to explore. Further plot details can emerge from the subsequent discussion.

      That discussion is what I particularly look forward to, the exploration of ideas that lie at the heart of a stimulating read. And I too take notes, not just for the purposes of review but for seeing how books tick.

      Repeating myself is inevitable — I just hope I never end up being like that aged relative who tells the same story every time you visit!

  12. Pingback: BBAW Day 5, Keeping the freshness alive | Nooks & Crannies - ’cus they’re perfect for a book lover

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