Joe Ponepinto spent the first half of his life in a variety of mercenary pursuits. To make up for it, he now writes, edits or teaches every day. He is the Book Review Editor for the Los Angeles Review, and has been published in many literary journals. He lives in Michigan with his wife, Dona, and Henry, the coffee drinking dog. His blog on writing and criticism is called The Saturday Morning Post.
With the recent flurry of articles that excoriate book reviews as unfairly positive, such as Jacob Silverman’s in Slate, or as written for hire or cronyism as in The New York Times, it’s tougher than ever for book reviewers to maintain their credibility with readers.
As the Book Review Editor for The Los Angeles Review, I at least get to define how ours are presented, in the hope that readers will find them honest, informative and fair.
First, an explanation. I’ve blogged on my own site about the incestuous relationship between book authors and reviewers, and noted we are not immune to the pressures that situation creates. Many of our reviews are positive, in large part because my review staff and I are free to choose books that we think we will enjoy reading. Reviewers on mainstream publications like The New York Review of Books must generally review books that are or will be in the news, so the chances of disliking the book are higher. And we do include negative observations in our reviews, although we tend to discuss them as reviewer and editor beforehand, and look for ways to temper the bad with the good before we publish.
So all that being said, what do I look for in a book review? With thanks to Ami Hendrickson for the opportunity to blog, here’s a list a of some of the major considerations:
- What’s it about? What’s it really about? Give me the tone and the theme, not the plot. Anyone can recite the plot of a book. What’s more valuable to me as a reader and an editor, is an indication of the emotions the book is meant to invoke. That relies heavily on the author’s execution of the theme. Of course the premise and some plot is necessary to help ground the reader of the review, but in general, I want to know what the book is about, not what happens.
- What’s the author trying to do, and did s/he do it? A good reviewer should recognize an author’s techniques and underlying ideas. Most books (the good ones, anyway) are filled with metaphor, both within the actual writing and in the theme. Reviewers—and I find the best ones are writers themselves—must be able to reverse engineer the author’s motivations to determine the effectiveness of the book.
- The “I’s” don’t have it. I do not like “personal reaction” book reviews. Let me rephrase that: I despise “personal reaction” book reviews. They are self-indulgent navel gazing of the worst kind. Bad enough the reader has to slog through some reviewer’s personal issues, but to brush aside an author’s hard work to do so? I advise my reviewers to write in a professional, third person style, unless there is a strong personal connection to the subject of the book that would warrant such a treatment.
- Specificity. Nothing turns me off a review faster than a string of generic adjectives. Wonderful, fabulous, well-written, enjoyable and their friends all go out the window. (Clichés, too—like that one.) Show, don’t tell is just as important in book reviews as it is in the writing.
- Creativity. A book review can be as creatively written as the book itself. When I write a review, I try to capture the attitude of the book to a small degree in order to relate the tone of the work. If it’s funny or quirky, dark or deeply emotional, I try to reflect that mood. But just like more creative genres, if the writing is over the top and tries to outshine the review, that only makes the reviewer look amateurish.
- This ain’t your high school book report. Show me you know what you’re talking about. Use literary theory. Reference other works for comparison. Build on the criticism that’s already out there, and make your review part of the literary conversation. Reading other books—a lot of them—helps.
Of course that’s just my short list. I could go on at length (and I often do). I welcome inquiries about book reviews and reviewing at email@example.com.