Monday, October 22, 2012

How to review books

I read reviews, I edit them, and I write them. It stands to reason, then, that I ought to have some opinions about book reviewing. Moreover, my approach to reviewing books has evolved a good deal over the years. I’ve been mulling over sharing some of these opinions for a while now, and I’ve decided that today is the day. What follows should not be taken for any more than it is: some, not all, of my opinions about how to review books; some of what I think makes a review good or bad (i.e., successful or unsuccessful); what, in my view, are the most important goals of a book review; and so on. This is hardly exhaustive, and will hardly be my final word on the subject. I’m also interested in thoughts and feedback from you.

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?


  1. I'm a frequent user of book reviews; buying my Tolkien books on a budget enforces the use of methods to choose where to spend my money (unless the budget is several times larger than mine) and reviews represent for me the best method for that. With that in mind, I agree entirely with your description of the purpose of reviews, and also that the focus should be on what the book actually is.

    With respect to bad books, I am grateful that there are those who will review even those and say what needs to be said, though I appreciate your position, and I also do hope that I will avoid such a situation myself. It is easier to have to point out a few weak contributions in a collection, or a weak chapter in a book, than having to through a whole book you dislike.

    You do, of course, say that your numbers are flexible, but I think I should prefer to stress this a bit more.

    The nature of the book to be reviewed, what the book purports to be relative to what it is, the nature of the medium in which the review is to appear, the audience of the review, any special circumstances of the review (e.g. what might appear as oddities in the choice of reviewer), all of these contribute to make the picture a bit more complex.

    In many cases we will know what the author intends the book to be (because the author has put that in the book or has said so elsewhere), and I think this is usually worth covering: in particular if there is a disparity between intention and reality (as perceived by the reviewer). We might throw in a small slice for that and shrink the rest of the pie proportionally.

    Apart from that, I will happily agree with your distribution of focus as a rough guideline for a large majority of reviews (and though I haven't so many reviews to my name yet, I hope that I do not stray too far from this).

  2. Thank you for your thoughts, Troels. Very good points, all of them. For what it's worth:

    In many cases we will know what the author intends the book to be (because the author has put that in the book or has said so elsewhere), and I think this is usually worth covering

    I agree, and this is part of what I call describing what a book should have been (as opposed to what it might have been). So in my mind, the proportional chart already accounts for this, and allows a decent-sized chunk. The difference between should and might may seem subtle, but if the author of a book states an intention and then fails to meet his own goal, well, then the book certainly should have met it. Or else the goal was poorly stated, which is equally worth comment.

  3. I wish the fellow who reviewed my book in Mythlore had had the benefit of this excellent advice!

    Oh wait. ;-)

  4. Interesting thoughts. I'd only add that I think there is room for book reviews to serve as the place to development the reviewer's own arguments - _if_ these have a direct relevance to the contents of the book. Some of the most useful book reviews I've read have had sections of this nature, basically working from a detailed response to the book's contents.

    Also, I would actually emphasize error correction a lot more. The odd typo here and there isn't a big deal, but when quotes, cited forms, or relevant facts are in error, it's only helpful to have these corrected. If, for instance, a book gets updated for a new edition, this can be very useful.

    This has to have limits, of course. Even listing straightforward errors of fact for, say, Mark Hooker's Tolkien and Welsh would take up a very significant amount of space in a review, and give entirely the wrong impression about the book: it might have an obvious error every other page, but it's nonetheless a stimulating and worthwhile read.

    I should maybe add that most of the book reviews I read are in linguistics more than Tolkien, and that might skew my perspective on them a little. Especially on the usefulness of correcting errors - ghost-forms have always been a problem, and reviews are one of the more useful tools in stopping their proliferation.

  5. What Troels mentioned in his comment I would like to stress as well - the percentages given should be adjustable if the book in question has to be put into a larger perspective.

    If you review a piece of fiction, for example, it might not be wise to give away too much of the story and rather compare it to other books of the genre in question so the reader would have a "check list" of things he/she would appreciate in any given book; with a review of secondary literature in a highly technical field you'd expect your audience to be extremely knowledgeable without you having to tell them what is going in - let's just dice and slice 'em if you don't like 'em.

    Just today I stumbled over a guy's page who has reviewed every single chapter of "The Lord of the Rings" in the course of about 18 months, writing more than 100,000 words about it. That would definitely be going too far in my opinion ... ;)

  6. Fabulous explanation, Jase! May I share it with my students?

    I always enjoy your book reviews because they are so thorough. The few reviews I've written on Amazon and Good Reads are very concise because I don't repeat the publisher info and other reviews. Since I only review books I like, they are not as vicious as Poe's. :)

  7. Cat, yes, of course, please share! :)

  8. Excellent summary Jason, leading me to blush rather at some reviews I have perpetrated in the past..... I can see why Cat wants to use it as a teaching guide. Since retiring I have been taking the TLS each week, and reading it, reading every review even in subjects that are not familiar to me. The very best reviews therein do follow your outline more or less exactly, and certainly all of them focus on the work, not on the opinions/feelings of the reviewer. I often joke that many TLS reviews are so good that you don't need to read the book as well - certainly I feel they keep me in touch with the vast multiplicity of 'stuff out there I am never going to have time to read', as well as leading me to things I must (a) buy) or (b) get hold of to read.

  9. Thank you very much, Saranna! I know what you mean about some book reviews being so good you almost feel you’ve read the book. Another experience I’ve had is reading a review that really excites me about reading the book being reviewed, only to find that a lot of the best ideas in the review were the reviewer’s, and not from the book at all. This happens with Tom Shippey’s reviews all the time! And these, come to think of it, are frequently in the TLS. :)

  10. Book reviews, and opinions on them can be extremely subjective. I've read many books on Tolkien that I considered to be an endless trot of the blatantly obvious, or a re-hashing of what has been said at least a dozen times before. However, the reviewers relished and praised these books from the rooftops. I've also read books that raised some thought-provoking and fundamental aspects and insights that I hadn't been aware of previously, but where the authors may have slipped a little on the facts (but not in a way that would invalidate the argument being made) or generally droned along in boring and unimaginative prose. The reviewers ripped them apart for that while totally missing if not ignoring the real gems that made these contributions valuable. So sometimes reviews can tell us as much about the reviewer as about the book. I know reviewing is not an easy task and of the few reviews I myself have written I am not one bit proud. A review is only as valuable as one's preparedness to trust the reviewer, so I tend to lend the most credence to those reviewers whose previous opinions tend to overlap with my own. But is this attitude not one that can ultimately lead my cart into the deepest rut? Sometimes it is necessary to ignore the reviewers and try different stuff out anyway, in spite of whast others say.