Redefining the book review

As I've been reviewing rather a lot of books in the past couple of years or more, and think I'm getting into the swing of it a bit, I was interested to read, via Mystery Bookshelf, itself picking up from Critical Mass blog, John Updike's book-review rules.

1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him/her for not achieving what he/she did not attempt.

2. Give the author enough direct quotation–at least one extended passage–of the book's prose so the review's reader can form her own impression, can get her own taste.

3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy precis.

4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending.

5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author's ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Be sure it's his and not yours?

Critical mass goes on to add a sixth, but takes a paragraph over it. It can be summed up as: "Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind."

Well, of these, I agree with (4) and the first part of (1). I don't agree with the second part of (1)* – although I wouldn't "blame" an author, I think it is fine for a reviewer to opine that a book does not succeed at what it seems to attempt. I don't agree with (2) or (3) - sometimes quotations can be apt, but I often find that reviews containing quotations are not that interesting. Selecting apt quotations is a skill, and one that is often lacking in a review, where quotations from the book can be used excessively and as a substitute for an original perspective by the reviewer. (5) is OK if there is a good example elsewhere of what an author has "failed" at, but there sometimes isn't. The additional rule (6) seems like special pleading. To my mind, if a reviewer declares any such interest openly, then it is up to the reader to read on or not. I would not agree, therefore, with (6) in a blanket sense.

OK, I realise I have just redefined a good book review as a short account that goes easy on the plot summary, doesn't give away the ending, and that understands or interprets what the author is trying to do, from the reviewer's perspective.

*Correction, thanks to Jasper in the comments to this post, I realise I misread the second part of (1). I agree with it, in fact – don't blame an author for what was not attempted.


12 thoughts on “Redefining the book review

  1. Great analysis Maxine.
    I have given up number 2 after I quoted extended passages to show readers how badly a book was written, and as a result poor Karen got threatened with a law suit for breach of copyright. Too many quotes!!

  2. Interesting. Re the vague no. 6: “…Review the book, not the reputation…” – this is akin to modern psych speak and has even made its way into staff appraisal territory, where it has become “criticise the relevant actions of the person and not the person”. Something I agree with, as we all make mistakes on times.
    With you on 2 and 3, Maxine. If I quote, it’s because either:
    1) It’s a new author in some way and getting a flavour of the writing style can be appropriate, or
    2) There will be some gems to be found in the text and I’ll share what I particularly enjoyed or what is worth a highlight.
    Agree with 1 and 4, like you.
    As for 5, what if you’ve read nothing else of the author? Or failed to be sucked in to earlier works? (Sometimes because you tried and did actually conclude “crap”.) The latest may prove to be an overall decent but with flaws, so do you have trawl the rest again? I don’t think so.
    As we see a move to blogs and similar online from MSM – and yes, we do, it is happening – there is still one thing that a blog review does not have that an MSM review has: back of legal power and insurance. Hence the reason that publishers and authors can still put the clampers on and hence the reason that bloggers will still veer towards the positive and not slate a book. (Which reminds me of a risky thing I posted recently…) Bad books are ditched in the blogosphere.
    That latter point is something I have raised with a PR recently. Because, as a reader, like many I don’t want to read an MSM review that says a latest bestseller’s bestseller is – in conclusion – dire. The die-hards gave up at least four books before and anticipated the next, setting no budget aside. I’d rather see space allocated to “what to buy” and give the good newbies a chance than see “what not to buy”. So here, I actually believe that bloggers have the mood of the moment and that the MSM reviewers need to catch up.
    Perhaps it is in their desire to remain aloof and inaccessible in both terms used and critique, that they themselves caused the decrease in (effective) advertising space on book pages, that has then led to the decrease in books pages. I have to ask.
    All while word-of-mouth on the internet, via forums, author sites, specialist sites and communities, and blogs has been rising.
    We went to our trusted MSM reviewers because we trusted them. Now they are either fully absent or curtailed to a paragraph on a book. You can write a para without reading the whole book and sometimes this shows.
    Diminution in value? Self-fulfilling prophecy? By God, sometimes it shows. Big time.
    Provocative post, Maxine. Thanks.
    (Sorry for long response as “shot my mouth off” again. Off to bed soon as entirely knackered after a long day of conference and travel, with a demanding day to follow tomorrow… Really good day today, though, I enjoyed it.)

  3. Thanks for your great comments, CFR and Norman.
    I think the legal point is a good one, and one not widely appreciated.

  4. ‘Tis a reflection that came out of thoughts at today’s conference on legalities of another matter. Legalities? Always a matter to think about…
    And in respect of blog comments, it is always something to think about, now and in the future. It’s now time we sought some creative thinking on the future, too. Not least because a falling economy will see a rise in crime (especially financial and it’s already been happening) and I suspect, the offended’s inclination to sue. Clive Cussler excepted, given today’s news. I hope he can meet the legal bill.

  5. It’s possible that you have the second half of (i) backwards – it’s fine, on these rules to say that a book fails at something it “seems to attempt”; just not to criticise it for failing at something it doesn’t seem to attempt. Or have I misunderstood your negatives?

  6. Very interesting post Maxine. Thanks.
    I’m still trying to settle on a format for writing a review but lately I have been following your redefinition, Maxine. I stick pretty much to the “first 50 pages” rule for the summary (got this from Kerrie). I don’t use quotes much for the reasons you described. After the summary, I put my most effort in *trying* to explain what made the book appealing to me, what made it stand out. Books that I don’t like or am lukewarm about will get the summary and maybe a couple of sentences.

  7. Thanks, Jasper, you are right. I’ve corrected the post, but the correction does not affect my final summary, I think – which still holds. I am all for short definitions without too many potentially confusing double negatives 😉

  8. Interesting rules. I tended to like all of them except 6. I agree with your analysis on that one. If it is very clear up front the reviewer came in with a predisposition, then I can still find the review valuable. If they swing hard to one side or the other, as a potential reader I also appreciate the reviewer mentioning someone else with an alternative viewpoint – in a busy world its easy to dismiss something based on a single review – particularly if you’re not that familiar with the reviewer – and that can be an opportunity missed. That’s why I tend to look at Amazon comments from 2 to 4 stars – they often give you a nice broad swath of opinion by real readers and you can get more a sense of what you’re getting into. It’s also helpful to know a little of the reviewer’s own background if they’re going to speak of the text’s accuracy and reasonableness.
    Having churned out something that might be considered somewhat of a first, Rule 5 intrigues me – as a reviewer might come up short giving a truly comparable example. But the final two sentences of 5. ask the reviewer to step back and ask why they’ve reached the conclusions they did. Not a bad idea – in the end art either works for you or it doesn’t, but it’s good to understand why (if you can) and take care when discussing it. A reviewer can dislike Wagner’s music and say so without extending that to imply Mr. W was a bad musician.

  9. I am wary of 2 and 3 without quite disagreeing with them. make sure one is not quoting because one is too lazy to gather and set down one’s oen thoughts.
    Of ocurse, there are really only two rules for a sucessful review:
    1) Write intelligently.
    2) Engage with the book. If you’re not passionate or at least interested, don’t bother.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    “Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home”

  10. My problem with quoting is that I usually have an advanced copy that says all over it “don’t quote without checking against the final publication” – which won’t be out until well after I’ve submitted the review. So I don’t quote.
    Updike as a very good and extremely conscientious book reviewer. He had far more room to play with than most of us, though. Mystery Scene reviews can’t be more than 250 words. (Blogs – more relaxed about space. Readers? I don’t know. I’m not sure they want to read a 2,000 word review.)

  11. 1) accurate description
    2) imaginative comparison, combined with
    3) deeply held and powerfully reasoned biases
    That should do it.

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