The art and craft of book reviewing


Most people who read books are not lovers of books. Perhaps not even the majority of critics who review them. A book reviewer wanting to do his job honestly and competently must get a genuine feel of the book. He must attempt to know what the book is about and what it promises. The process of measuring the contents of a book against the promises held out, observing which of its characteristics are most telling and deciding what observations on the reviewer’s part will impart the reader a comprehension of the book, is called book reviewing.G S Jolly shares more about the art and craft of book reviewing. Dictionary of Literary Terms defines a book review as a brief account in which the writer gives his reactions to a book, movie, play, or musical performance. In his lectures on Shakespeare and Milton, Samuel Taylor Coleridge said, “Reviewers are usually people who would have been poets, historians, biographers, if they could; they have tried their talent at one or the other and have failed; therefore, they turn critics.”

Many writers in the field of art and entertainment are indeed people who have been poets, historians or biographers, but all of them have not been failures. Their taking up of critical writing does not indicate a lack of talent and creativity. Indeed, a reviewer who has enriched his background by participating in the cultural world as a writer or an artist may in many ways be better prepared to understand and judge a work than a reviewer who appears suddenly as full-fledged critic. There are many examples of people who are remembered as much for their critical ability as their artistic output.

Author-book reviewer’s relationship…

Book reviewers have been chastised over time for deriving sadistic pleasure in tearing apart what may have been an author’s work of a lifetime. A literary myth, found in older textbooks has it that Keats was killed by an unfavorable book review that he gave up the struggle against tuberculosis because of despair and hopelessness over a reviewer’s scorn. Goethe, himself by no means a stranger to writing book reviews wrote ‘Schlagt ihn tot, denhund; Er IsteinRezensent’ (Beat him to death, the dog, he is a book reviewer). In somewhat milder tone, Carlos Baker, the critic and literary historian, wrote, “Among those who distrust the critic as an intrusive middleman, edging his vast… bulk between author and audience, it is not uncommon to wish him away of direcdt line of vision”.

What a book reviewer does?

Reviewers are basically appraisers of fruits of intellectual labour or diviners of trends in popular culture, dutifully reporting plot and setting. They are a select group who provide the first public response to a book. The reading public, even though blessed with cornucopia of arts, entertainment, leisure-time activities, seeks guidance and advice from the media. Reviewing of books is, therefore, a hallmark of journalism.

The world of culture is heavily populated with authorities and experts, but few effective critics. The main reason is that evaluation of literary work, however thoughtful, must be translated from mind to paper. The process is difficult. Much is lost in the act of communication if the writer does not have a knack of presenting his ideas.

Kinds of reviewers

Reviewers can broadly be classified into two categories: Hacks, who provide plot summaries or short descriptions served in a sauce of flowery adjectives; and Literary craftsmen, who render serious critical judgements. The latter write for a limited audience while the former cater to the masses. Hack reviewers often rely on publicity handouts supplied by the publishers rather than read the book themselves. These so called reviewers are blurb writers. Another characteristic of hack reviewers is that they lack critical judgement; they are afraid of retaliation by authors, publishers and editors. Literary craftsman are writers who take their cultural responsibility seriously. They consider a book in the light of the past.

Seven deadly sins of criticism

Before discussing what a book reviewer should do, let us have an idea what he should not do. According to Carlos Baker, a reviewer should keep away from the seven deadly sins of criticism. He is worth quoting at length.

“The seven deadly sins of criticism, if we are to avoid, and none of us completely does, require of us a constant reassessment of our motives. Here is for example, the critical sin of covetousness, which may cause the critic to seek the fame at the expense of the author, whose work he exploits. The closely associated sin of envy leads to the denigration of the works of the author for the hidden purpose of self-aggrandizement. To indulge in the sin of gluttony is to bite more than one is prepared to digest, denying others the right to partake.

To be lustful is to indulge in inordinate desire for gratification of one’s sense of power. The deadly sin of anger leads to the loss of one’s composure and sense of balancing during the inevitable exchange of differing opinions. The deadly sin of sloth is to repeat accepted lies about an author or a body of work because one is too lazy to dig out the truth. The critical sin of pride is to hand down judgments with a godlike assumption of infallibility and to assume, along with the robs of a judge, the axe of executioner.”

What makes a good reviewer is not only the ability to avoid committing these sins but also the ability to adapt the review to the style and level of the medium for which he is writing. The reviewer should write in the language of the journal in which the review is to be published and at the level of understanding of the readers who are its audience. Not only this, a reviewer should ask himself what authority he has to judge a work and how he should exercise it. Before putting down a single word of praise or admonition on paper he should become well acquainted with his rights and responsibilities.

Schools of criticism

It may not be out of place here to say a few words about schools of literary criticism. The academics have given us two polarities to contemplate: Authoritative criticism and Impressionistic criticism. The Authoritative criticism is one in which a particular work is evaluated with reference to historic models that have previously been jugged worthy. For this, authoritative critic must have considerable background preparation and exposure to the art form. The impressionistic approach, conversely, generates an expression of the reviewer’s reaction to a work, exclusive of standards or procedures. The work is judged on its own merits in a singular context.

Both these approaches have arguments against them. The strongest argument against the Authoritative position is that it tends to remove the audience from the centre and asks the reader to stand by and watch while the reviewer submits his work to laboratory analysis. Impressionistic philosophy, on the other hand, substitutes personal criteria in place of historical precedent and can lead to excesses of ego building that are of no benefit to the artist or the audience.

It is, therefore, wise to remain closer to the middle of the Authoritative – Impressionistic continuum than to lean towards either of the extremes. The best way to offer is brief discussion of precedents, putting the work at hand into some sort of context than reflecting, perhaps on the general casualness of letters and social behavior in evidence today. Most reviewers feel free to switch into the more comfortable personal essay style, often leading to an ‘I – like – it -because’ conclusion.

What a reviewer should do?

As for style attention should be drawn to two facets of writing which are crucial to effective criticism; avoiding the cliché and condensing description. Avoiding clichés is a simple matter or so it would seem to the beginner. But a cliché is an insidious beast lurking in the shadows, waiting to take advantage of any sign of fatigue or laziness on the writer’s part. It should be recognized that phrases fail to communicate.

Avoid doing plot summaries unless justified and situation calling for full exposition of the story line. Because unless warranted, the review may look as nothing but the plot retold in a mocking or disapproving way. Particularly when suspense is the key element, revealing the ending may do a disservice to the author a well as the publisher.

A thoughtful reviewer is one who learns to distinguish between adjectives, which merely measure or identify and adjectives, which describe and illuminate. ‘Nice’, ‘Beautiful’, ‘Heartwarming’ and ‘excellent’ are words which categorize but they can leave the readers wondering. ‘Nice’ in what way? ‘Beautiful’ of what qualities? ‘Heartwarming’ to whom? ‘Excellent’ by what standards?

Developing a style of writing is important in building readership but relying on a private vocabulary is not the way to go about it. Style is an extension of personality, not a byproduct of word coinage or thesaurus.

Review preparation

The process of thinking starts the moment the reviewer receives the copy from the publisher or magazine/newspaper editor. The accompanying letter may include information aout the nature of the book – whether it is a biography, a political commentary, research thesis, fiction, etc. Needless to say that the book has to be read in entirety, not in a spasmodic manner. The dust cover and the blurb may provide useful information which may make the work of researching about the author easy.

If the book is second or third work by an author, must the reviewer have read the previous ones? In case of non-fiction, the answer is positively ‘yes.’ A knowledge of the author’s earlier worked helps the reviewer in relating the development of his style and refinements, if any. The reviewer should also have a knowledge of similar titles by other authors, so that he is in a position to place the book in hand in a larger context. It is also not uncommon to review four or five books on similar subject in one go.

Whether the review has been written quickly or at leisure, it always does good to put it away for a day or two. Re-reading will enable the reviewer to improve it by elimination redundancies and using alternative word and phrases. The reviewer looses his credibility if errors that could have been easily checked appear in his work.

Four Requirements

What then is expected of a book reviewer? What treatment is he called upon to provide to the work in hand? The reviewer’s essay should reflect sense, feeling, tone, and intention.

Sense: When we speak to say something we use words to direct the listener’s attention but are we using the right words for the right audience? Are our arguments making any sense? Because, as Confucius said, “When what is said is not what is meant then what needs to be done remains undone.”

Feeling: What is the aim of the reviewer? Is he promoting the author or satisfying his own ego by seeing his own name in print? What is required is a sense of sincerity. The reviewer should not churn our praise if the work does not deserve it. The essay should depict the reviewer’s full concern for the authority over the subject and he should not be guided by personal bias.

Tone: The reviewer should have the right attitude towards the author and the audience. His writing should be free from sentimentalism. He should choose and arrange his words so that they reflect his concern for the author.

Intention: Apart from what the reviewer has written (sense), his attitude to what he is talking about (feeling) and his treatment of author and his audience (tone) every review should attempt to serve some purpose.

It is not without reason that publishers and editors believe that book reviews are important. A good review is expected to serve the public in several ways. The primary obligation of the reviewer is to inform, to report and to take notice of what is new. A reviewer helps the public to spend their limited time and money wisely. Reviews are sometimes called shopping guides and because the reviewer steers the audience towards choosing books that are interesting and innovative.

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