The Art of the Book Review

The Art of the Book Review April 1, 2014

Writers who publish books will soon find their books subjected to reviews. Although good book reviews are enormously helpful for keeping up with what’s happening in one’s field, for individual authors they can be frustrating, perplexing, and even paralyzing. Negative reviews can send writers into chasms of bitterness and personal resentment against the reviewer, or depression about being deemed inadequate by peers. As someone who has received his share of just about every kind of book review, let me offer a few thoughts on how to write, and how to receive, (nonfiction) book reviews.

When reviewing a book, be as charitable as possible. This is a “Golden Rule” issue. Once you’ve experienced the years of struggle behind producing a book, you should be cautious about casually dismissing the value of another author’s work. Even when I have major problems with a book, I try to praise it as much as I can, and include a few lines that a press could likely use to promote the book. This is what I would want from other reviewers – why not extend the same courtesy?

It is certainly in-bounds to disagree with an author’s interpretation or ideological assumptions, of course. But do this in a polite way, as a means of discussion rather than denunciation. Pointing out factual errors is harsh but fair, especially when the errors in question are major, repeated, and/or touch on the book’s key claims. I do not, however, believe that reviewers should point out small factual or typographical errors. The worst habit is when reviewers characterize disputed points, or matters of opinion, as errors of fact.

Remember as you are writing a book review: it is entirely likely, if you do not already know the author, that you may meet him or her at a conference. (I can recall times when I have met reviewers on elevators of conference hotels soon after they wrote negative reviews of one of my books! Awkward…) If you end up meeting them, or having to work with them, will you be able to look them in the eye?

I am convinced that book reviews are among the least “objective” writing exercises – a great deal depends on the reviewer’s mood and temperament, unstated issues about personal or institutional rivalries (or lack thereof), and the quirks of a reviewer’s pet peeves. Certain books, such as ones filled with major factual errors, will receive almost universally negative reviews no matter who reviews them. To a lesser extent, certain extraordinary books will receive mostly positive reviews, no matter who assesses them. But we’ve all seen cases of books which receive high praise in most reviews, which also receive scorching criticisms by one or two outliers.

Remember, when you receive some bad book reviews – and you will – it does not necessarily mean that your book is objectively bad. Too many other factors are at work. I advise skimming reviews of your work, taking what’s valuable and letting the rest slide. Try not to hold grudges. I know some established authors who don’t read reviews of their work at all, but this seems extreme to me.

Write book reviews to stimulate and shape conversations in your field, to commend the strengths you can find in any but the very worst books, and to (cautiously and graciously) identify unanswered questions or interpretive difficulties in them. A scorched-earth or overly picky review often damages the reputation of the reviewer as much as it damages the reviewed book. If you can’t go into a review with a generous attitude, it would probably be best not to write it.

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