God knows, the world needs more book reviewers.
A key principle of Literary Citizenship is that it’s important to talk up (informally) or review (formally) the books you like. Start with your personal network and work up to Goodreads and Amazon.com. Review books on your blog. Maybe even work toward reviewing for newspapers and magazines, print or online. Robin Becker at Penn State and Irina Reyn at Pitt are just two people I know of who actively teach their students how to write and publish book reviews.
Now, I’ve never been much of a book reviewer, but I know people who are.
Like my friend, the writer/critic David Walton. He’s the author of the novel Ride and a former winner of the Flannery O’Connor Prize for Short Fiction. He’s also a prolific book reviewer for such places as the New York Times Book Review and the Dallas Morning News, among others.
[Also: this gave me an excuse to write to him. Because he’s one of the things I miss most about Pittsburgh.]
Q: Dave, I’ve shared John Updike’s six rules for book reviewers with my students, as well as this incredibly informative article by Rebecca Skloot about how to break in as a book reviewer. What my students need from you are the very basics.
Well, some of this is standard.
- Full title and full author name early, if possible in the first paragraph, even though it’s in the heading.
- Something about the author, but not much.
- Give away no important plot point, and nothing after the first 50 or 100 pages.
- Make sure you have a quote or two–a sample of the author’s style.
- You need a lede and a walk-off, an opening that overviews the book and a conclusion that leaves a final impression, final point–and for me is usually something specific, a detail from the book, less than an overview or judgment.
- Avoid conflicts of interest (no reviewing of friends, enemies, former professors, etc.)
But really, the book itself shapes the review.
Q: How long should a review be?
Word limits are strict. 450-500 words. It used to be 500-600, but 450 is preferred, and I try to aim for that. That means you have to be compressed in what you say, and very definite.
I usually write 500+ then pare down.
Q: Oh, gentle reader, to give you a sense of how many words that is, I should mention that you have now reached word 430 in this post.
Writing a polished review is a demanding writing exercise. It takes me two days to get those 450 words. Sometimes I labor over an opening paragraph or two for a couple of hours, then pitch it out. And believe me, there’s a lot to check in 450 words–use the word excellent twice, or any word, and it stands out.
Q: Do you review books you don’t like?
My feeling is that you review books you like, and the review’s job is to sell the book. There are so many books, why give attention to a bad book? Readers read reviews to spot books they want to read. That’s my feeling. However, established writers can be knocked and savaged, when they deserve it.
Q: Why do you do it?
Why do I review books? Because I like to read. I mostly review history and bioraphy, and usually single out subjects I don’t know much about. Right now I’m reviewing a history of the tenth century. I can’t think of a subject more remote from my interests–but every period of history has its interest, and every good book is an enlargement, even if it doesn’t fit into your category of expertise. Especially if it doesn’t fit into your existing category of expertise, but gives you, as a book should, a new perspective, a set of experiences you would not otherwise have had.
Also, I like to see my name in print. Through lean years of output and publication, I’ve been able to consider myself a writer. My words are in newspapers all over Dallas, or Cleveland, or Louisville, Kansas City, with my name above them.
Partly for the money, too, believe it or not. Newspapers don’t pay much for a review, maybe a couple of hundred at best. More often less, much less. It adds up if you can publish a review in more than one place, but that takes patience and finesse. Most editors want to run their reviews first. And newspapers, and newspaper space, shrink year by year.
Q: What my students want to know is “Can I make a living at it?”
No, probably not. Reviewing can be a drain. It pays little. It takes time from other things. But it instills the standards that are important in all writing: economy, precision, a sense of order and clear purpose. And lastly: most of us are English majors, and isn’t it the dream of the English major to be paid for reading–that solitary pursuit that for years took us away from play and chores, that got us labelled as idlers and dropouts and solitaries? And here at last, even if only for a rate I figure out to be about 35 cents an hour, to be paid for it. It’s too good to pass up.
Some years ago I might send a review to eight or ten papers, but many of them are gone now, or don’t publish reviews anymore, or have had their freelancer budget cut to nothing. But for years reviewing sustained me, some of them very lean years, and I’ve gained immeasurably from working with gifted and sensitive editors, who cared about books, and nurtured writers and reviewers–especially local writers–in ways that advanced them. In many ways the book editor of an important newspaper can nourish and advance a fledgling writer. Many of the old practices and standards, and safeguards, of the publishing business have gone by the wayside over these past decades, at the same as the newspaper business has shrunk, and newspapers and publishing houses have gutted their staffs of editors, proofreaders, fact checkers. Reviewing books is an important part of a writer’s community, and grows more important as you grow in prominence.
Q: What’s hard for me to talk to my students about is why book reviews matter–and by this I mean formal reviews, book criticism. They’re undergraduates. They don’t want to think of themselves as “critics.” They don’t read the NYTBR. They might pick up Scott Turow’s Innocent and see a snippet of your review from the Dallas Morning News and have no idea how that snippet got there, why it matters that it’s there.
Because of the decline of a strong publishing apparatus, and a healthy spirit of review and criticism in the daily press, writers must fall back more on their own immediate community of friends, fellow writers, and direct readership on line. Hurt especially are those levels of first and middle list authors who require time and close editorial guidance to become grow, and find their readership.
Book reviewing is a huge subject–and an important one. On the right sidebar, I’ve archived MANY articles about this topic. The Giraldi thing. The good reviews for hire thing. Check them out. If there’s something you think I should know about, please, pass it on!
Over on his blog Footnotes, Jackson Eflin talks up books his likes–with plenty of footnotes.
Every week, I come across a book and think, I wish I had time to read this and get other people to read it. Either it’s by a friend (IRL or virtual) or a former student or someone I heard at a reading or someone I don’t even know who just mails me their book and says, “Here. I want you to have this.” I keep these books on a special shelf in my bedroom which I’ve labeled in my head, BOOKS I WISH I COULD DO MORE FOR.
But the sad fact of my life as a creative writing teacher is that I don’t have a lot of time to read books.
Also, I suck at writing book reviews.
So on the first night of Literary Citizenship class, I brought all those books from my shelf at home to class, held them up one by one, and “pitched” them to my students. We’d been talking about following writers on social media. They were following all these famous writers, and I said, “People, these writers don’t need your help. Those books don’t need you. THESE books need you.”
One of those books was The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters. I heard him give a talk in Indianapolis a few months ago at the Gathering of Writers. He talked very fast and very convincingly about novel writing, and I wrote down everything he said. Afterwards, I introduced myself to him, thanked him for his talk, and then went to the book table and bought his most recent novel.
My husband read it first. He loved it, and he’s hard to please. He wrote a Goodreads review of it.
A few weeks later, over Christmas break, I had a chance to read it, and I thought, Oh my students would love this.
I was right.
The first student to get her hands on the novel was Sarah Hollowell, who tweeted a marriage proposal to Mr. Winters upon finishing it. Then she wrote a nice review.
The second student to read it was Jackson Eflin, who was intrigued by Sarah’s raving and read it himself. He reviewed it on his new blog Footnotes, where you will notice he uses a lot of footnotes.
There are things that still wish could happen.
- My husband, Sarah, and Jackson all borrowed my book. So, I don’t know if I’ve helped Winters sell any books yet.
- My husband needs to put his review on Amazon, where more people will find it, perhaps. Actually, I think he should publish his reviews in larger venues.
- Sarah and Jackson could, if they liked, try to publish their reviews in larger venues and/or continue developing the readership of their blogs by continuing to write good, well-written, interesting reviews.
- I need to get to the part of my syllabus where I cover book reviews–how to write them and the ethics of book reviewing culture, which can get pretty murky sometimes.
Another student in my class, Rachael Heffner, reviewed a book on her Tumblr this week. It’s another from my BOOKS I WISH I COULD DO MORE FOR pile, the first novel by my former student Sal Pane: Last Call in the City of Bridges. Rachael read this book for another class she’s taking with me, so she wrote up a review and posted it, and Sal saw it and shared it.
Trouble is: there were were spelling errors and other mistakes. When I asked Rachael to edit her post a little, she was grateful for the feedback. She said she’s used to posting things to her Tumblr that only a few people see. She’s not used to having a bigger audience.
I told her, “If you’re applying for a job with say, an agent or publisher, and they Google you and find that review, they might think twice about hiring you. They might worry that your writing skills aren’t strong enough yet.”
On the other hand, they might think, “Isn’t it great that this person is active on social media and cares about something. It’s the spirit that counts.” This is a distinct possibility.
It was, as they say, a teachable moment.
Last night, Rachael told me that another writer had noticed her review of Sal’s novel and emailed her to see if she would like to review more books. She was very excited about this, and I am too, but like I said, we haven’t gotten to book reviewing part of the syllabus yet. Check out the links to the right here —-> “Reviewing Others.” It’s all about the ways in which social media is changing the way we think about what it means to review a book.
I’ve invited my students to be literary citizens and help me help other people’s books.
This has an upside, but a downside, too.