The English Major’s Dream Job: Book Reviewing Advice from David Walton

David Walton, author of Ride, reviewer of many, many books.

David Walton, author of Ride, reviewer of many, many books.

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.

“Showing off” 20%

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! 

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