03 March 2017

Reviewing the Reviewers

By Art Taylor

One of the courses I'm teaching this semester at George Mason University is titled "Crafting and Publishing Reviews," and we've been looking not only at the various types of reviews out there (a big difference between a lengthy essay in The New York Review of Books, for example, and a three-paragraph review in Entertainment Weekly) but also at the longer history of reviewing and the larger landscape of questions about how reviews are read and how they should be written. I've been fortunate to contribute reviews to a number of publications over the years, including the Washington Post, the Washington Independent Review of Books, and Mystery Scene, just as a sampling, and I've been grateful during this course to welcome the voices of even more experienced critics into the classroom via Google Hangouts, including Washington Post critic Ron Charles and freelance critic Mark Athitakis so far; next week, we'll host Kristopher Zgorski of BOLO Books to talk about book blogging and book advocacy, and more guests are on the syllabus ahead.

This past Wednesday's class was focused on the ethics of reviewing, and I'll share links to some of that reading here (click on the titles to reach the articles):

I'm not sure how the nuanced and troubling the students found the readings (the view from my side of the class discussion likely much different from their view), but I was struck by many of the conflicts and even contradictions in different viewpoints.

The column on John Updike's rules champions the "role social responsibility of the critic" by building on E.B. White's call for writers to "life people up, not lower them down." A couple of the columns stressed the need for fairness in reviewing—not only in terms of being fair to the book being reviewed by specifically by avoiding conflicts of interest in several directions: reviewers shouldn't be friends with the authors they're reviewing, nor should they be enemies, perhaps for obvious reasons.

And yet in contrast, there are concerns that too much politeness might lead, in Julavits' words, to "dreckish handholding" and a "trumpeting of mediocrity," and Shafer said more frankly, "The point of a book review isn't to review worthy books fairly, it's to publish good pieces"—and he pointed to the "British model" of assigning "lively-but-conflicted writers" to create greater tension (and perhaps draw more readers).

Perhaps most interesting to my mind was the idea of how to approach a book in the first place. An earlier reading from our syllabus—Lynne Sharon Schwartz's "The Making of a Reviewer" from the collection Book Reviewing, edited by Sylvia E. Kamerman—championed the idea of treating a new book as a "strange new geological treasure" to be judged for "its intrinsic, living qualities" (a contrast to what Schwartz called "negative criticism," the idea of appraising a book "on the basis of what it has failed to accomplish, with these failings usually derived from the critic's own notion of how he or she would have handled the subject"). In Julavits' essay, however, New Yorker critic James Wood is praised for his "idealism": 

Wood is peevish, even occasionally mean, but never snarky. He is perpetually disappointed with “us,” (if you’re a writer, even one he’s never written about, you cannot help but feel you’ve let him down)—which is certainly better than being too jaded to be much more than dismissively irritated, too disdainful of fiction to do much more than toss clich├ęd disparagements around... and call it criticism. Wood makes people hopping mad, yes, but despite his grumbly excoriations there’s usually room for a dialogue with Woods, which indicates there’s something to wrangle over, i.e., his claims are based on a strongly-held (and felt) belief system, and he’s an intellectual, which means he likes to be forced to defend that belief system. 

Approach a new book with some naivete or innocence? or with the full force of your belief system behind you? 

I recognize that not all readers here are reviewers, but we are indeed readers—and I'm curious how you approach a new novel. Filled with expectations and armed with standards? Or willing to see where the author might take you? Or can there be overlap between those approaches? 


  1. Terrific post, Art. To me a review should give a brief description of the story, without spoilers, and talk about what's good or not in the book, what works or doesn't. It doesn't have to be positive, but it shouldn't be vindictive either for whatever reasons the reviewer might have. It should be what we learned in school, constructive criticism, and not a tour de force for the reviewer to show off their erudition or whatever. But most of all it should be honest.

  2. Thanks for posting on this topic, Art. I think a reviewer should think first of their readers. What do they want to know? What is the book about? Why should they care? Did the reviewer like it, and why. Include an excerpt or a short passage so readers can get a little feel for the author’s writing. If fiction, was it satisfying? If non-fiction, were there any obvious omissions or errors. If not widely available, where can you get it? Any relevant websites?

  3. Interesting. Never been a fan of reviews - writing them or reading them. Never been a fan of physics but I know how important both are. For a while I wondered how so many Indie writers like me got 500 - 600 5-star reviews on Amazon until I got solicited by a number of entities who guarantee 5-star reviews from their tons of avid readers. For a fee.

  4. Excellent post, Art.

    I agree with Paul about what a review should do, and I used to write a lot of them, but I've tapered off over the last couple of years. The books I liked a lot already had dozens--sometimes hundreds--of five star reviews on Amazon so I felt unnecessary, and some books that had raves clearly written by friends or family (you can spot them instantly) were seldom worth the trouble, especially when I would have trashed them, which I don't like to do.

    I do like the comment that the reviewer should not be a friend or enemy. Some of my friends have asked me for reviews occasionally, and I feel awkward when the book doesn't thrill me. That's only happened two or three times, and in one case I told the writer I couldn't give them a glowing report. Another, I gave a better review than I really felt it deserved because the writer offered to blurb one of my books. Ironically, I ended up abandoning that project so the blurb never happened. But the more I look at it, the more I dislike the quid pro quo deal in reviews.

    Art, it's great that you teach this class because reviewing is a valuable art that's becoming an endangered one, too.

  5. Thanks, Paul, Richard, O'Neil and Steve -- I'm just getting down to business this morning, and I was pleased to see so many comments here already!

    Interesting comments on all counts. We have already looked at the anatomy of a review, and discussed many of the things that y'all have mentioned here: summary of a book, quotes from the book (letting the author speak him/herself), then some argument about what's working, what's not, along with supporting evidence--never just an "I liked/I didn't like" approach on its own.

    Richard's comment that reviewers are for the reader seems pretty straightforward--I'd agree--but some essays have stressed other audiences, including that larger "culture," that some critics are indeed writing as cultural commentators and "for the record" (so to speak) as opposed to just a consumer-reports type of assessment: buy, don't buy, whatever.

    And yes, O'Neil and Steve: One of our sessions ahead is devoted to Amazon and Goodreads reviews and others like it--and a different challenge of ethics there, whether it's paid reviews or quid pro quo or family/friends or.... well, crowdsourcing has its issues. And with Amazon's trend (still ongoing?) of deleting reviews if their algorithms detect that you "know" an author too well--and Yelp's trend of "hiding" reviews that don't seem useful (useful?), with the possibility that advertisers get special treatment.... well, all of this is complicated, and often eye-opening for the students.

    In any case, thanks, everyone, for the perspectives. Appreciate this discussion!

  6. Hi, Art and everyone.

    Personally, I find it too difficult and disingenuous to try and approach each new book I read as if I've never read anything in the genre before. That said, I've mostly reviewed for sites and magazines geared toward genre readers, not first-timers.

    From majoring in creative writing in college, I learned how to critique stories' execution -- the writing on the page -- without crossing into dubious territory like the writer's possible state of mind or motives for writing what s/he did. I focus on execution in my reviews to give readers a sense of how writers work their way through stories tapping into readers' emotions as they go.

    Lastly, for me, there's a difference between approaching a book to review it and approaching it to read for pleasure. Of course I've enjoyed the vast majority of books I've reviewed -- at this stage, if I don't largely enjoy something, I don't publish a review -- but that leaves many books I read just for myself, with no requirements of ethics or etiquette.

  7. Hi, Art. Nice blog. And wow, your class sounds cool. Wish I could take it. Anyway, you asked if we approach a new novel:

    Filled with expectations and armed with standards? Or willing to see where the author might take you? Or can there be overlap between those approaches?

    Yes, yes, and yes. There are certain things I expect to see and not see in a novel (and short story). Understandable writing. No information dumps early on. No "if only I had knowns ..." But sometimes a wonderful writer comes along who makes me swoon, and I'm willing to toss my standards out the window because Wonderful Writer broke the rules AND made it work.

    You haven't touched on this, but I'd like to add that so often I hear people say that no one should review a book they haven't finished reading. And I agree with that, with a caveat. If a book is so riddled with problems that the reviewer can specifically identify, I think a review of an unfinished book is warranted. I would love to read a review that said, "I can't discuss if the plot worked because I didn't finish reading this book, but I did read the first fifty pages, and there were spelling and punctuation errors on every single page." That would be helpful for me.

  8. Very interesting. Thanks.

    As a hobby reviewer, I agree with much of what Paul said. My goal is to help readers find authors I love.

    When I sit down with a new book, I'm expecting to love it. I don't pick up a book to read unless I think I will like it, and I only agree to review books for review that I would buy. Does that always happen? No. The important thing then is to be honest about why, but to do it without attacking the author or being mean. It's a very fine line to walk, and it's hard to do.

    I got my start review on Amazon, and I've been doing it since 2001. I could go on for days about the pluses and minuses of the reviews on that site, how it gets abused, and how Amazon treats loyal reviewers. I'm still posting my book reviews there, but I'm only doing it because I know it helps authors. If it weren't for that, I would have given up on the site.

  9. Enjoyed the post, Art. I've never written reviews (except Amazon reviews--and those can be painful), but I enjoy reading professional reviews, even if there's very little chance I'll read the book. That's especially true for nonfiction books. For example, I'll read a two-page review of a new biography of Abraham Lincoln, even though I don't plan to read the three-volume book. The review (usually written by someone with expertise in the field) gives me a sense of current thinking about Lincoln and usually contains information that's new to me. So that's another purpose for reviews--to give readers a glimpse into books they might like to read if only they had the time. And, once in a while, a review makes a book sound so fascinating and important that I go ahead and buy the book, even though I originally had no intention of doing so.

  10. (And...once again...I want to sign up for your class.)

    Great post, Art!

  11. Weekend and start of the week left me behind on all things. But thanks to Gerald, Mark, Barb, Bonnie and Cynthia for chiming in!

    Bonnie, like you, I often read reviews for books I know I'm never going to read myself—and amazing how much you can get out of even that; feels like I stay "in the know" better than I would've if left to my own reading....

    Mark: Appreciate all you do—always really enjoy your reviews and perspectives. Interesting that you got your start doing Amazon reviews, and appreciate that you've got a more formal venue now—good for all!

    And good points, Barb and Gerald, about how to approach books. As you suggested, Gerald, a lot of the same skills go into book reviewing that these students are using in college lit classes—though some small shift in the way they present analysis (since we don't have to cite, etc. in quite the same way). And Barb: Good point about reading the whole book--or not. I do chafe a little at folks who read only a couple of pages and then toss a book (say because of a single swear word, which I've seen in Amazon reviews), but I do think that those reviews can give a preview of a book in different ways--letting readers know what's ahead.

    And hey Barb and Cynthia: Would be fun to have you in class—definitely!


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