How to write a book review

Read quickly. You’re not being paid enough to spend quality time with this book, and besides, you can usually tell within the first five pages whether the author has written the book you want to read, or something that merits only scorn. You can try opening it at random and reading ten different pages to get a flavor of it. Or make like Marshall McLuhan and read — or rather skim — just the odd-numbered pages.

If it’s a novel, you’re not supposed to give away the ending in any case. Reading all the way to the end is for suckers and college interns eager to suck up to the editor. The important thing is to demonstrate critical acumen in the review, which is best done by adopting a tone of lofty condescension, unless the author is a friend or someone who might conceivably be asked to review your own next book, in which case you are better off to hail the work as groundbreaking while at the same time naming other writers in the same genre to which is bears a close resemblance. These writers can be selected more or less random — the more off-the-wall the comparisons, the more you’ll come across as eclectic and perceptive (not to mention well-read).

Important note: don’t be too hasty in emailing this off to your editor. Fact-check to make sure you have the basic details right, such as the main character’s name and situation. If you screw that up, you risk blowing your cover and looking like a total dumb-ass.

Poetry is a trickier case, but one rarely encountered by the professional reviewer, since so few major publications want to risk driving away readers with reviews whose sole value is to garner a little extra high-brow credibility for the publication. If you are called upon to review a book of poetry, the safest approach again is to open the book in a number of places at random. Select four or five reasonably interesting quotes, decide what they likely mean in the context of the book as suggested by the blurbs and publisher’s description, then decide whether or not this is the sort of poetry you like and respond appropriately, either with fulsome praise or scathing condemnation. Since the American poetry scene is riven by factionalism, such extremes of rhetoric are the norm.

Poetry review editors also sometimes ask for three or four books to be included in the same review. On the surface, this might seem to make your job even harder, but not really. Now you only need to find one or two exemplary quotes per book, and their greater variety will push you to greater heights of creativity in your connective prose. If you’re really feeling puckish, and if the publication isn’t one that specializes in poetry, deduce a trend. Whatever you do, don’t engage with the subject matter of the poems, unless to belittle the poet (Sharon Olds’ obsession with sex, Mary Oliver’s rhapsodies about nature). You’re better than that. Remember, poetry is all about language, in the same way that painting is all about paint. Leave the achingly sincere analyses to the Christian Science Monitor and small-time bloggers.

8 Replies to “How to write a book review”

  1. What timing! Honest, I have draft my very next post about how I review books. It is part of the conclusion to my Double Space series of reviews. My method is very bloggy, as you have observed about my bloggy method of reviewing Odes to Tools, the only book of poetry I dared review. As I’m guessing you’ll agree, blogged reviews naturally have a more subjective character. The post will be out sometime soon. I’ll be interested in responses to your post.

  2. There goes the bearded Bontasaurus, lurching through the woods and stepping on reviewers–poor things are probably squeaking, six feet down! Most amusing. You probably ought to be cruel to the academic poet’s tendency to puff his/her tribe. Or club. Highly useful, whatever it is.

    I was once touted as the love child of Allan Gurganus and Toni Morrison in a review, and later became friends with the reviewer… One wellish-known novelist (I must be fairly good-humored because I can’t even remember who) spent the entire review of my first book complaining about the pricetag, which I, of course, was helpless to change. Mostly I try to look at the things when nobody else is looking at them–late, that is. But I have found that one gets remarkably few reviews of poetry books compared to reviews of fiction. Poets are grateful for any mention, any little marrow-sucked bone. In fact, I would mention my upcoming poetry book except it seems entirely too shameless! XD

    1. Marly, those reviews are going to be hard to top. But will your next poetry book include a colophon? I could write a review focusing entirely on typesetting decisions, maybe.

      1. That’s a good question…

        Actually I think a review of the physical book is perfectly fine, so long as one is writing for “Bookbinding Weekly” or “The Garamondian” or some such. Or just bloggishly considering matters of production and beauty and so on…

        I don’t actually recal a colophon in the galleys, which I read three times. So I ought to remember. Perhaps my brain is simply zombified.

        But I just picked up “The Flower Seeker” (also from Mercer), and there is a great big colophon, “About the Type.” It says that the greater portion of the book was set in LTC Caslon and discusses that face. Then it says that Tiepolo Book was used in sections expressing the author’s thoughts (Philip Lee Williams) in the present day. Then Lucida Blackletter was used for portions spoken by “native characters in the time of William Bartram.” Documents and correspondences were in Adine Kirnberg Script. And then there are some other typefaces using more sparingly. So I suppose it may indeed have a colophon, though it won’t need one that’s quite so complex! A demanding, finicky job of typesetting, “The Flower Seeker.”

        1. I know just what you mean, because I was looking at that self-same book at a friends’s house the other week. I love the subject matter, but was unpersuaded by what I read of the poetry, dipping in here and there. And I have to say I found the mish-mash of fonts highly annoying.

          1. I still have it waiting for me to have a little dratted time. (Yes, I am a Bartram maniac, too.) Phil is a friend of mine, so I am definitely going to read it… Better known as a novelist, of course, but this is his second book of poetry.

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