Monday, September 9, 2013

How (not) to write a book review

I came across the following at goodreads and have borrowed it to say a few things about reviewing books:

This book has everything you need to make a historical novel suck. And not just moderate, forgivable sucking, but full-on golf ball through a garden hose suckage. Painstaking, ubiquitous research that adds nothing; language so stilted it topples off the page; unbelievable characters doing ludicrous things, but doing them -- importantly -- in period costume; overwrought British-accent narrative musings stretching to find some justifying meaning in the assinine [sic] shit-chimp plot. Also, a glowing cover blurb from Annie Proulx. What the fuck? My mind rejects it as true non-sense.

I grant a reader the right to be angered and repelled by a book. But this diatribe puts me in mind of a quote attributed to Kurt Vonnegut that writer Thomas Rizzo recently posted on Facebook:

“Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.”

Vonnegut rarely said anything without irony, but I think his point here is that a full-scale assault on a novel quickly becomes overkill. And if you extend the analogy, he seems to be saying that a novel is no more than a defenseless confection anyway. What’s the big deal?

For me, the main purpose of a review is to give a reader enough information to predict whether a book will hold his or her interest. What else besides that do we expect from a book? The writer of the review above doesn’t do that. All I know is that he or she thinks the book sucks and then complains about it in a way that doesn’t help me as a reader at all.

Here are some points the reviewer might have considered:

Plot. Safe to say, most readers of fiction read for plot. It’s possible to sum up the plot of a novel in 10-25 words. It’s often enough to simply state the premise:

It’s 1876 and two aging Texas Rangers take a herd of cattle on a perilous trek across Indian Territory to points north.

Beyond that, a summary of the plot needs no more than what a reader requires to understand the rest of the discussion of the book. Meanwhile, most readers don’t like spoilers, so I try not to give away too much. Surprises should remain surprises.

A review can say that a novel ends happily without spoiling anything, if how it does that is left unexplained. A dramatic turn of plot can also reveal something of the content of a story without being over-specific. For example:

A life-and-death crisis develops as a confrontation with a band of hostile Indians leaves one man mortally wounded and another wandering alone and on foot across the trackless prairie.

It's tricky knowing where to draw the line, but I find reviews sometimes that are blow-by-blow synopses of a plot. The writers, I think, are confusing plot summary with something like a Reader's Digest condensed version of the novel. That's not the job of a review either.

Characters. Its also safe to that readers like to be able to identify with characters, so a few words describing them can be helpful. And I try to keep them objective, leaving it to the reader to decide whether the characters sound likable or even believable.

The two rangers, Gus and Call, are opposites in temperament. Gus is the more generous and congenial, his daring reflected in the rescue of a young woman who has been abducted. Call is reticent and given to outbursts of anger. Both men are haunted by memories of former loves.

Readers also enjoy hating well-drawn villains, and they are worth a mention, too.

Dislikes. No novel is perfect, and it’s easy to find fault. Some novels, especially with self-publication, have been rushed to print before their time. I consider them unfinished and don’t review them. If my dislikes about a book outweigh any merit I find in it, I don’t review it either.

I recently considered two books that fell on either side of that divide. Neither was written by a skilled storyteller. While it may have been partly fiction, one was really more of a memoir about the writer’s youth packing horses in the Sierras. In style, it was no more than proficient, and there was not a great deal of depth to it.

Another novel began as a murder mystery, set in the Southwest of a century ago. I liked that it began in a town under floodwaters and had a feeling for the period. But I put the book down when a scene that had taken place in chapter two had been retold for the second time. And wanting too much to be clever, the teenage narrator got way too quippy.

I decided to finish and write up the first book, with a review that will probably start: “I didn’t think I was going to like this book, but it kind of grew on me.” The second one has an audience somewhere, maybe YA readers, but its first chapters couldn’t hold my interest. There won’t be a review.

Caveats. If I think an otherwise well-written book will put off some readers, I include caveats at the end of a review, as I did with this one:

One of the characters is an ugly man, a bully long rotten to the core. You learn things about him that are frankly revolting. Readers should also be warned that there are scenes of graphic and brutal violence.

And this one:

The blunt sexual content of some stories pushes the boundaries of the genre. While it may shock some readers, the intent seems not to be erotic but to represent a fact of frontier life, reflecting a gross brutality to be found sometimes among hardened men and women.

Selling. Something I try not to do is use a review to sell a book. Like this one from an amazon customer:

Anyone who enjoys a good western will enjoy this book. I am an avid fan [of the author] and was, in no way, disappointed with this story. The plot was solid and riveting. The characters were strong and the suspense of the story made it very difficult to put it down until I had finished the book. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys suspense, romance, and good strong heroes in their books! This was a great read!

All this tells a reader is that the reviewer really loved the book. He or she may have very different ideas from you and me about what makes a “good western.” For that matter they could be best friends of the author or a member of the family—or these days it could even be the author himself. Which is not to say I don’t review books by writers I know personally, but I try my best to be objective and descriptive. I certainly make no promises about whether you’ll love a book.

As for the reviewer at the top of this post, well, it’s still a free country. Say what you want, but don’t figure you’ve made your point just because you’ve said it.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Roni McFadden, The Longest Trail


  1. Excellent. I have written only a couple of "Scathing" reviews in my life. In each case I was reacting partly to the overwhelming 'love" shown to the work by other people. The real gushers are as bad as the diatribes it seems to me.

  2. I don't like long book reviews that are the "book report" style that tell me the entire plot. I usually jump to the end in hopes of a summary as to what the reviewer thought overall. Generally, the jacket copy or description of the book online tells me what I need to know as to what it's about, I want a review to tell me if it works or not.

    If I see a scathing review, I'll often look to see what else the reviewer has reviewed. Often, these folks do nothing BUT negative reviews. If that's the case, I generally ignore them. There are plenty of folks out there who thing they are clever in being snarky. It's unfortunate.

    I've largely given up doing reviews, at least as it relates to places like Amazon and Goodreads. I still mention the occasional books on my blog, but when I started getting a bunch of requests to review books from people I didn't know, I decided enough was enough.

  3. This is excellent and also timely, with so many reader-reviewers posting on Internet sites. Good reviews describe the book's contents and then evaluate the material. Traditionally, reviewers brought erudition and expertise to the task. They knew the literature in the field, and thus could compare the reviewed book to others, and to the author's previous works. The National Book Critics Circle recognized good reviewing and reviewers, and encouraged excellence. At bottom, traditional reviewers brought some authority to their task. They were able to recognize the gifts and failings of an author, the coherence or incoherence of a novel, and whether the novel succeeded. The opinions of professionals varied widely, but at least they were backed by deep experience and a knowledge of literature. I have a reviewer friend who, like you, simply won't bother to review a book if the book doesn't offer anything to the reading public.

  4. Good, helpful blog, Ron. That's what reviews should be - helpful. A negative diatribe tells me more about the reviewer than the book. I checked on one reviewer who marked me down from 4 to 3 stars - he'd done the same to Ben Hur 'because the language was archaic!'

  5. Solid post, Ron. You include a lot of things to keep in mind when drafting a review, and I think the majority of bloggers keep them in mind when producing something to post. The "reviews" on Amazon, Goodreads and similar internet websites are another story. Some people seem to think that reviews are more like popularity contests then analysis and commentary.

  6. Well-written, well-analysed, Ron. This is going to help me a great deal in writing better reviews. The last two lines of your post were a gem. I am selective of the reviews that I read on the internet, mostly on blogs and review sections of newspapers.

  7. Thank you for bringing to light what a review can and should be. I will sometimes write about books I am reading and enjoy, but in no way would I consider what I do a review. My taste do not always match those of others. I do enjoy a well written review, even if I decide to not read the book. Good writing is always worth a look, including reviews.

  8. Good post. When shopping for a book, I often look at the bad reviews first. If they are written like your example, I dismiss them and go on to the good reviews.

  9. I like reviews that put the book into context for me--maybe referring to similar books, other works by the writer, the subject matter itself. But these are more essays and you don't find them in the newspaper that often. I truly hate reviews of both books and movies that merely and at great length tell you the plot. And I hate reviews like the one by Mary Gaitskill last week that spew venom and jealousy.

  10. Very good points. I look at reviews for a book that I know nothing about, trying to get an idea of whether it's for me, as you said—and reviews like the last example are not very helpful in that case. Adjectives alone don't really tell you anything (I'd say "sweeping" and "epic" are probably the most overused ever in the review department). I'm sure I've fallen into the trap of not being specific enough myself at times, but I do try to avoid it. :)

    I also very much appreciate a review that gives a caveat about content. But there aren't as many of those as you'd think. I've read nine out of ten glowing reviews where readers discuss all the things they love about the plot, characters, writing, etc., and then a tenth just casually mentions that it has R-rated scenes or language. Suddenly it's a whole different book than you thought.

  11. A helpful hint for new reviewers is "be objective as well as subjective." This means that as well as recording personal reactions the reviewer should address an author's intentions and how well they have been fulfilled. If it's a work of genre fiction, for example, the reviewer should have made the effort to ascertain what readers of the genre expect, and should give an opinion on whether the book reviewed meets the expectations.

    I've been remarkably lucky with reviews by bloggers and at Amazon. The kind of review that ticks all the boxes, as identified here and elsewhere, was typified for me just last week with Charles Rutledge's brilliant review of Sons and Gunslicks at his blog Singular Points.

  12. I first became aware of reviewing as a discipline long ago when I met Win Blevins, author of many excellent fur-trade novels. He told he has an advanced degree in literary and music criticism from Columbia University. Until then, I had thought of reviewing as simply an opinion, or personal reaction, to a work under review. But it is a discipline, based on much more than the personal responses or prejudices of the reviewer.

  13. Ron, thanks for a good guideline on writing book reviews. You hit the high spots of what's good and not-so-good. I've always found it interesting to see how some people love to skewer authors, even in cases where the novels were free. I good rule-of-thumb that I follow is if I read a book and dislike it and can't find much in the way of redeeming value, it's kind of senseless to write a review--unless I was being paid for professional reviews, of course.

  14. Bravo! All this explains why I enjoy your reviews so much. Keep up the good work.

  15. I've had many good reviews and a few stinkers. But one guy gave himself away. He said he had read everything Zane Gray published so he knew for sure my historical novel sucked.