Book Review Manifesto

Too many book reviews these days read like marketing testimonials. They’re too kind. They’re too fluffy. Most reviewers play nice because most are friends with the author and/or they are authors themselves and fear that their negativity might someday come around to bite their own book in the ass. It doesn’t take much Googling to find out which authors take turns promoting each others’ books. Sometimes you only have to trace it back to an MFA program or writing conference. This type of nepotism is understandable, but personally I would find it easier to accept if the reviewer owned their relationship to the author and perhaps added a personal anecdote to the review. Perhaps then I’d find some value in it.

The most annoying book reviews are the ones in which the reviewer is clearly using the article as an opportunity to showcase their own literary chops. The review becomes nothing more than a chance for them to add a bio line listing their own publications at the bottom of the article. Everybody’s writing reviews. They’re all over the Internet. I barley read any of them. Why bother? They’re seldom informative. They’ve become a genre in themselves that I find altogether disingenuous and self-serving. I’d rather read literary criticism. At least my brain gets something out of that. Who’s out there reading book reviews these days? Family and friends of the author and reviewer?

My opinion is that The Believer/McSweeney’s crowd killed the book review with their nicey nice philosophy on the writing of them. I pretty much disagree with everything Dale Peck ever says, but I do sometimes enjoy reading his “hatchet jobs” even when aimed at my favorite authors. It’s like listening to conservative talk radio. The insane discourse at least brings out some emotions in me. Decorated author and book reviewer J. Robert Lennon recently took some flack for harshly critiquing Paul Auster’s new memoir. The response inspired him to write a book review manifesto calling for balance and objectivism. He published it on his website. Here’s the link…

He also spoke on the BBC’s World Service recently and discussed the topic with reviewer Leo Robson. It’s definitely worth a listen.

Solstice Magazine will soon be publishing book reviews and we’d love to hear your comments on what you want/need in one. Do you prefer objectivism or thinly veiled partisanship? A sophisticated blend of the two? Do you want a little mud-slinging or would you prefer to join the reviewer and author in a group hug? Share your thoughts with us!

Eugenio Volpe

Eugenio Volpe

Boston native Eugenio Volpe is a PEN Discovery Award winner and Pushcart nominee. He teaches creative writing at Arizona State University’s Piper Studio. His short stories have appeared in publications such as SalamanderNew York TyrantPost RoadSolstice Literary Magazine, and dozens more.

  1. Jose Skinner on

    I always thought John Updike was a pretty good reviewer. These are his pointers, which I found on Wikipedia:

    1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.
    2. Give enough direct quotation — at least one extended passage — of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.
    3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy précis.
    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 œuvre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?
    To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. 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 any ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never … try to put the author “in his place,” making of him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys of reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.

  2. Jose Skinner on

    If a reviewer doesn’t like the whole genre, broadly-speaking, to which a book belongs (and Giraldi, according to an essay he wrote for Poets & Writers a couple of issues back, doesn’t like what he calls “the way we live now” books, by which he means books like Alix Ohlin’s), I think he should refrain from using a book review as a platform to attack that “genre.” I mean, if the reviewer can’t put himself, even for an instant, in the shoes of those who might like the book, that reviewer probably shouldn’t review the book. (He should reserve his attack for precisely the kind of essay Giraldi wrote for P&W–that way, it’s less ad hominem). If you simply can’t stand “the way we live now” books (whatever that means), why review one? Or, as a friend of mine says, if you can’t be thrilled, don’t review a thriller. On the other hand, if you like, or at least understand, the genre, then it is your duty, as a reviewer, to point out the book’s deficits, as well as the merits, vis-a-vis that genre.

  3. connor williams on

    I am not an author – only a life-long, avid reader.

    I no longer bother to read book reviews, because they seem to be too tied to the marketing-pr spin (let’s face it, the bestsellers list is about as corrupt free as the old-time radio top-of-the-charts list), and to an unidentified audience.

    What I would like to see in a review is:

    Background, (and not just a list of info from their CV) – on the author – both on what makes them tick and on the context of the piece being reviewed within their entire body of work.

    Comparison – what are the things that make this work unique within the context of it’s given genre? what are the similarities to other writers who have published works on the same theme/in the same style/from the same culture? (I want to beLIEVE that the critic is more than a journalist selling his/her article.)

    Examples – I want evidence of passages, linguistic rhythms, structural composition, etc, that express more than just a recounting of plot, or a suggestion of mood.

    An opinion about who this particular work was written for – who does this author write for? Where does the author’s heart lie? I want the REAL opinion of the critic – based on their subjective perspective. I expect only once in a blue moon for something to be truly exceptional (I would soooo like to “believe”), and I also expect a simple “not at all interesting” comment on the (hopefully) rare piece of complete dross. Anything inbetween is fair game for personal opinion!

  4. Gail Gilliland on

    I’ll have to agree that too many book reviews might be written by the author’s friends – if only because it’s hard for a reviewer not to know the writer of a given book AT ALL, given today’s creative writing program network, in which so many writers are involved either as teachers, or as students, be it current or past. But when I’ve been asked by a book editor to review a book I find a total failure (and that’s rare) – I’ve found the best comment on a book I think is that lousy (in my opinion, anyway) is just to ask the book editor for some other book to review. You’ve already done your harm with that – because no publicity pretty much equals no readers. As an example of a review that did no one any good, and aside from its stale academic tropes also taught the reader nothing, please read William Giraldi’s vicious (and loooonnnnggg) review of TWO books by Alix Ohlin (why review two if you didn’t like the first?) in The New York Times Book Review (8/17/12). I can’t imagine what it felt like to be Ms. Ohlin as she read that vitriolic attack, but my own reaction was that there must have been some other history there, and that this review was Mr. Giraldi’s revenge. THAT’s a bad review.

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