Monday, October 22, 2012
How to review books
I’d like to begin with the appropriate scope and subject for book reviews, mainly because this is something that often sticks in my craw when I’m reading and editing them. Here, I’ve got a visual aid. If you take a look at the pie chart I’ve included above, you’ll get a rough idea of what I think book reviewers should spend their time discussing and in what proportions. Perhaps 70% of the review should discuss what a book is actually about. Maybe 18% of the review can then talk about what the book should have been — that is, oversights and missed opportunities closely related to its central argument, without which the argument is weaker, or with which the argument could have been made stronger. Then another, say, 10% of the review might touch on what the book might have been — that is, more digressive, or more distantly related things that the author missed, chose not to include, or perhaps hinted at or merely adumbrated. The final 2% (if even that) of the review could be used to talk about what the book is not. These numbers are, of course, not absolute. The idea is to illustrate what I take to be the relative importance of each of these four kinds of review content.
You might think this is all pretty obvious. It should be. But I have read a surprising number of book reviews that do not conform to this model at all. A good (or rather a bad) example which stands out in my mind is the review of Truths Breathed Through Silver (ed. Jonathan Himes; Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008), by Charles Foster, published in The C.S. Lewis Chronicle (6.2 [April 2009]: 40).
The review is short, a shade under 300 words, already almost too short to be of much value, and most of it is not about what the book is, but rather about what it is not. It consists of three paragraphs, of which the first might be summarized thus: “The Inklings were a tweedy crowd who shared a common belief in inescapable myths, of which Christianty was the supreme.” The second, thus: “Their respect for myths shaped their writings, some of which took the form of new mythologies.” At this point, the reviewer, who is already two-thirds of the way through his commentary, writes: “That is what I thought this book would be about. But it isn’t.” When I read this review, an inner voice wanted to snidely reply: “Actually reviewing the book in question is what I thought this review would be about. But it isn’t.” The reviewer limits his actual commentary on the book to about three or four sentences, of which even these make little attempt to assess the merits and flaws of the collection under consideration. An unbalanced, unsuccessful review.
At this point, it might be worth taking a moment to consider the purpose of book reviews. The first and most important goal of a review ought to be to answer the question, should anybody read the book being discussed? An enormous number of books are published every year, and nobody can read them all. Even within a narrow field of interest such as Tolkien studies, it can be hard to keep up. Reviewers are meant to be knowledgeable guides who can advise which books are worth a reader’s time. A review like Charles Foster’s is not useful in this regard. All it really manages to convey is that Foster was disappointed with the book. But of course, he would be, since he expected it to be something it wasn’t.
Speaking of bad reviews, what about bad reviews? That is to say, reviews of bad books. Edgar Allan Poe used to be notorious for his “tomahawk” reviews, reviews that were so relentlessly vicious it wouldn’t surprise me if he had a suicide or two on his conscience. These can be very entertaining to read — for people with no connection or vested interest in the target, at least — but I have come to agree with Auden, who felt that reviewing bad books was bad for you.
“Attacking bad books is not only a waste of time but also bad for the character,” Auden wrote. “If I find a book really bad, the only interest I can derive from writing about it has to come from myself, from such display of intelligence, wit and malice as I can contrive. One cannot review a bad book without showing off.” (W. H. Auden, “Reading”, in The Dyer’s Hand, and Other Essays, New York: Random House, 1962, p. 11).
If I take a good, hard look at my own early reviews, I can see some evidence of the truth of this, especially where showing off is concerned. Reviewers are normally engaged to review a book because they are more knowledgeable in their field than the average reader (on the other hand, sometimes you get this kind of tripe). That knowledge provides a larger context for judging the successes and failures of a book, so it’s a very important ingredient in a successful review. But, like paprika, it is an ingredient of which a little goes a long way. It is shockingly easy for even a well-intentioned reviewer to lapse into intellectual ostentation. I’ve been guilty of this myself. I now make a deliberate effort to avoid it in my reviews, and that deliberation is an attitude which I think can only come from experience. And when it comes to books I think so bad as to be unworthy of any but the most scathing review — the kind of book Auden had in mind — I’ve been known to decline the assignment and return the book to the editor. There is an argument to be made for reviewing even books this bad, if for no other reason than to warn away readers, but I have decided that I will leave that task to others. It’s not about sparing the feelings of the book’s author(s); rather, it’s about sparing my own character and freeing up my time for more rewarding pursuits.
What else is a book review for? I’ve said the most important thing it should do is help potential readers to decide whether to pick up a book or pass it by. Its next most important purpose, in my view, is to describe the contents of the book and offer judgments about those contents. A large part of a book’s appeal is subjective, depending on what’s in it. In the case of a multicontributor collection, especially, potential readers would like to know what the collection contains as this will normally help them to decide whether they want to read it. It’s true that readers have other sources of information besides book reviews — Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Google Books, publishers’ websites, etc., will often enumerate tables of contents — but reviews should do likewise if they can. If space is at more of a premium, they still ought to at least summarize the contents. It’s worth pointing out that enumerating the contents of a collection and describing every piece can be taken too far. The best example I know of this is Deidre A. Dawson’s recent review for Tolkien Studies of The Ring Goes Ever On, a two-volume conference proceedings. Dawson’s review is an astonishing 100 pages long, nearly one-eighth the size of the collection under review. To put this in perspective, if my own book had been reviewed with a corresponding level of attention, that review would have been thirty pages long instead of four!
Rehearsing a book’s contents falls into the category of describing what a book is actually about, and it gives the reviewer an organized, intuitive structure for then offering opinions and value judgments on each constituent part of the book. As the reviewer works his or her way through each chapter, section, or what have you, there will also be an opportunity to point out oversights, on perhaps a one in four (~18:70) ratio. Less often still, perhaps for one piece in seven, the reviewer could venture further in opining about what the piece might have been. And there might — might — be room for just one or two observations about what the book isn’t. All of this requires good judgment, and ample room. When the length of a review is severely constrained, these extra digressions have to be sacrificed.
One other quick point, on the subject of noting errors. I think it’s important for reviewers to call out major errors, but this has to be done with care. Far too easily, the exercise of nit-picking errors falls into the category of showing off (and again, I’ve been guilty of it). I have also seen situations, and narrowly avoided them myself, where a reviewer’s attempt to point out an error is itself in error. But reviews themselves are seldom reviewed, and so, sometimes, an unfair or mistaken criticism can stand unchallenged. Another good example: I have seen situations where a quotation is wrong in an advance reading copy, but has been corrected in the final published book. And finally, there is the situation where a reviewer criticizes grammar, spelling, typos, etc., only to commit them him or herself. A real-world example to back this up: “Another rather serious flaw is the apparent lack of any proofreading of the manuscript, which would have spared some of the authors […] embarrassment”, followed closely by: “A set of eyes real eyes, not virtual ones is necessary”. Tsk, tsk, clearly a set of eyes — real eyes, not virtual ones — was necessary in this review as well. I should note that the author of this particular review does indeed point out some very serious editorial errors, such as the appearance of the same essay twice between the same covers.
Better to avoid getting egg on your face by refraining, except under exceptional circumstances, from this kind of criticism. Unless it is very frequent and conspicuous (and naturally there are legitimate examples of this extreme), it is unlikely to affect a reviewer’s ultimate recommendation. And if you are going to make a point of noting grammatical and spelling errors, triple-check your review to make sure you aren’t equally guilty. :)
So, there you are. To me, all of this constitutes a recipe for a pretty successful and useful book review. Agree? Disagree? Things I missed?