On Reviewing Books

Truly, there is nothing quite like getting on one’s high horse and then discovering how much shorter the horse is in comparison to the one you aspire to ride.

I’ve been reflecting on the quality of my reviews, especially after having written several posts on what I think makes a good, fair treatment of a book, and then after labouring over my latest review, which I consider far from satisfactory. Frankly, I am disappointed in my own reviews. And the more disappointed I become, the harder they are to write, often taking me days to compose, often edited within an inch of their lives so that they lack any life at all. They remain, unfortunately, despite my efforts, so far from what I would like them to be.

Perhaps I’m being too hard on myself. But as I read book reviews in papers like the New York Times, I see what a real assessment should be and, in contrast, what mine are. Rather than reach back to the educational roots I have as an English literature scholar, those roots I keep referring to (perhaps in the hope of resurrecting that ability I once possessed to prolifically produce intelligent material), I’ve been reviewing more like a copy editor, nitpicking format and technical elements rather than really exploring the elements of the story. Sure, I come up with some questions, sure I give you reasons why something worked or didn’t for me. In the end, you’ll still come away with a feeling, if you haven’t read the book, that you would like or not like to read it. And if you have read the book, with any luck you’ll have been urged to think on something you hadn’t considered.

But I’d like my reviews to be less focused on technical elements and more thematic, to explore metaphor and story. As a reader, that’s what I value, as a book blogger, what I thus aspire to. Perhaps more importantly, I think that’s how a good book deserves to be treated, with careful thought and exploration.

Some books simply don’t call for this sort of analysis, I suppose, though even the Hunger Games YA trilogy carried themes of war and self-sacrifice, survival and risk, humanity and ethics and morals, power and oppression, politics and fear, voyeurism and schadenfreude, love and loyalty.

In Jane Urquart’s newest book Sanctuary Line, a character asks, “How do we enter a book?” And the answer is: emotionally, intellectually, philosophically, and esthetically. This is (we hope) the reader’s experience, the ability to connect or be satisfied on all four of these levels. It’s not why we read, it’s how. Certainly, the physical, sensory experience counts, also the pace, style, setting, and syntax. But a book is a contribution, an offering. In order to explore just what that contribution is—that is, in order to write a review—besides stating what we like and don’t like, what works and doesn’t, we have to also examine what the book is telling us.

I’m not sure if we can apply this to all books we read (I’m trying to think of what I Am Number Four is telling us, if anything, for example), but in general, the act of reading is not only escape or entertainment but also a means of edification, of exploring themes of what it means to be human on this earth. In my opinion, (my) reviews should reflect that.

13 Responses

  1. Kerry 16 February, 2011 / 10:49 pm

    The benefit of writing a blog and not the NYTImes, however, is that you have license to review however you feel like at the moment (and however the book calls for). On myblog, I try to review as a *reader*, and provide access to the book via the manner I enjoyed it. I think this is what makes bloggers different from reviewers (and what makes the best bloggers’ reviews more interesting– that there is *you* in your reviews).

    • Steph 16 February, 2011 / 11:15 pm

      Hmmm. That’s a really good point, and I admit to feeling totally relieved by your comment. I’ve been stressing about the quality of what I write, comparing myself to other reviewers, and bloggers (I hadn’t even considered the difference, another very good point you raise), whose reviews I admire. You’ve made me feel I can lessen the pressure on myself because readers like you don’t mind having something that’s not NY Times copy. I still want to explore books the way Urquhart talks about reading them, but as you say, I would like to also provide access to the book via the way I enjoyed it. I really like the idea of being able to keep me, my voice, intact.

    • Robin Spano 17 February, 2011 / 12:11 pm

      Kerry, I agree. As a writer, I value blog reviewers reactions precisely because they are more like readers’ emotional reactions, and they help me see how the book is connecting with readers (and how it isn’t), which is invaluable for shaping the series going forward.

      I find professional reviews less valuable – though they contribute to the book world in their own way, and their relative objectivity may help readers more, I’ve learned way more from blog evaluations than critics’ decrees.

      That said, I admire Steph’s continued quest to find her own true voice online. Steph, your outlook is so thoughtful, so original, and so soulful toward literature, I think you should follow your star and write the reviews you find the most valuable.

      P.S., Of all the reviews my book received (from bloggers, critics, writers, or anyone), I think your two (Steph and Kerry) were the ones I learned the most from as a writer. Maybe that’s because you both do crossover between reacting like a reader and reviewing like a scholar.

      • Steph 17 February, 2011 / 2:02 pm

        Robin,

        Thank you! That’s very encouraging to hear, that my review helped as well as was enjoyable and thoughtful. I think this is where I have to be: a balance between reaction and exploration. Also, it goes both ways: I’ve learned so much from your commenting here, and I appreciate that more than you can know.

        Again, thank you. Your third paragraph is so lovely I feel as though I want to print it out and put it by my desk to keep me focused.

  2. Charlotte 16 February, 2011 / 11:15 pm

    The other benefit to writing a blog and not for the NYT (in my case, the model/aspiration is the TLS!) is that it’s a training ground. I don’t believe for a minute that anyone does their best work in their youth (and you and I are still young ;)), and the only thing that keeps lifting that bar is practice, challenges, experience and more practice. Blogs give us an unprecedented apprenticeship in journalism, I think – as much or as little exposure as we’re comfortable with, time and freedom to develop our styles and skills as we go. You’re already doing brilliantly and you can always get better. The only thing to do is keep at it, and remain self-critical and focused.

    Oh, and to enjoy the ride too! :D

    • Steph 16 February, 2011 / 11:18 pm

      You guys have really given me more to think about regarding blogging. I hadn’t thought much at all about the difference between blogging and, say, newspaper writing. This is really great advice, Charlotte, and a wonderful perspective. Thank you. Thank you both.

      • Steph 17 February, 2011 / 9:45 am

        I usually try to convey how I feel about a book, how I felt while reading it, and I want to keep that, keep my voice, as Kerry and Charlotte pointed out. At the same time, I think reading goes beyond that. I can’t get past the feeling that I am obliged, in order to be fair to the author, to explore the themes of their work. I really enjoyed doing this in uni. But a balance, a mix of both, would be best, I guess, rather than simply gushing positive or negative feelings or producing theses!

  3. Vicki Ziegler 17 February, 2011 / 8:39 am

    You’ve set a good and noble standard for yourself and how you reflect on and share your thoughts about the books you’re reading. Elevating it all to a higher sense or purpose is great, but I think it’s also fair game if a book doesn’t allow you to get to that level. In other words, technical or mechanical commentary is fine (in moderation, mind) if the basic elements of the book are preventing you from enjoying it and getting something out of it at other levels. Then, of course, you could debate whether the author needed to refine his/her work better, he/she needed to be edited more thoroughly, the book was a failed but admirable experiment, etc. I know, for example, there has been much debate about this very issue with respect to the latest Giller Prize winner.

    Anyhow, thanks for pondering this and sharing it with us.

    • Steph 17 February, 2011 / 9:56 am

      Hey Vicki! Yes, while I was writing I was thinking, I’d still like to review a book if it doesn’t allow me to get to that level; I should be able to express that, too. And yes, I too have seen much debate in this respect regarding the latest Giller! Funny, we were just talking about that last night at our book club…

      Thank you very much for your comment. Well said. This is giving me so much cause for thought! I appreciate it.

  4. JK 18 February, 2011 / 7:31 am

    Steph, you are too hard on yourself. To echo what other people have said, blogs and the NYT are different. And thank goodness, because that’s what makes literary discussion so varied and interesting! I think it’s our job as bloggers to provide different voices and different entry points for a book.

    I’ve always loved for reviews for the balance of reaction/opinion and analysis, for a voice that is personable and intelligent (but not pretentious), and because your love for books (even if you don’t like the one you’re reviewing) always shines through.

    It’s fine to always aim higher, but I think you’re doing a very fine job as is. Don’t stress so much. Unlike the NYT, this isn’t a paid gig, so relax and enjoy yourself, so that writing can be a reward rather than a slog!

    • Steph 18 February, 2011 / 8:25 am

      Jen,

      My instinct was to protest, but it’s not a slog! And then I caught myself. It has, as I said, been taking an inappropriate, inordinate amount of time, lately, and I thought I was behind on reviews because of that but mostly because I’ve been kind of meh about some of the books I’ve read. But Apocalypse for Beginners by Nicolas Dickner and The Incident Report by Martha Baillie are books I quite enjoyed and thus you would think I would enjoy reviewing them. So I can only assume I’ve been procrastinating because lately the reviews have been a daunting feat.

      So you’re right. I need to stop worrying I’ll disappoint you guys, the people I so respect and admire, and just enjoy the blogging. All of you have noted the difference between blogging and the NYT or other reviews like those, and I’m aghast at this point that the difference never occurred to me. Because really, I can’t read just those paper reviews. I spend a lot of time on blogs like yours and those of others who comment here…and enjoying the voice and style.

      Thanks for commenting, book twin, I appreciate your input!

  5. Em 18 February, 2011 / 6:56 pm

    First of all, I really enjoy reading your reviews and other posts. I think they are balanced, considered and so well-written.
    I agree with the comments above. A blog is something personal and you do expect reviews to also be personal, whereas in a magazine you have to be more neutral. I know that I, for one, am a lot more influenced by bloggers’ reviews than by reviews in magazines, particularly when you start knowing the bloggers and see what they like and how they judge books.

    I think book reviews are really difficult to write (theatre reviews even more); it’s not like writing an essay. They are two different forms: one is an evaluation, a judgement; the other is an exploration and an argument. However, as these are our blogs, we are free to do whatever we want!
    I think there is also the spoiler factor to consider. Litlove @ Tales from the Reading Room wrote an interesting post on the topic. That’s another choice we have to make; I try not to reveal too much, but sometimes cannot avoid it. How can you properly discuss a book without considering it as a whole?

    I really admire your posts; they are so thoughtful. I wish mine were half as good, but then this is something I do to take a break from my studies and I want to enjoy it; I don’t want it to become the same exercise as what I do the rest of the time. I know my reviews are imperfect and could be a lot more analytical, but what I try to do is to make them personal and show in what way a book has affected me.

    Maybe you need to take it a bit easier and let yourself go a little so you might enjoy the process more rather than making it like work and spending hours revising the review. You are talented anyway, so it can only be beneficial.

    • Steph 20 February, 2011 / 2:23 pm

      Love this comment, Em! I too try not to reveal too much; I want more to give my experience of the book rather than to give info readers can readily get right on the cover.
      Thank you so much for your compliments and encouragement. I think you have an excellent point about our posts being enjoyable, not obligatory, and personal rather than neutral.

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