The art of reviewing

There’s been a bit of talk around the traps lately about literary criticism, blog reviewers (or should I say bloggers who review) and readers who review. Also aspiring authors who review. I was recently asked if I would be interested in doing reviewing and my knee-jerk reaction was to say NO. There were various sentiments behind that no: I don’t know how to review properly, I don’t like reviewing books that I haven’t enjoyed or that I’ve actively been (in my head, and in my private notes) very critical of. Also, I see lots of writer and reader blogs, especially links off twitter, which are total suck jobs and/or really badly written. I also don’t want to scatter-shot my creative/writing energy towards projects that I have doubts about. I want to conserve my already limited time and juice for my fiction, my reading, my online stuff and then of course there are those little ‘extras’ aka family, paid work, friends, domestic stuff.

I’ve been thinking in the week since I knee-jerked that NO out of me, propped at a bar in funky-fash Brooklyn Heights, mulling over red wine and the best macaroni cheese with a side of perfectly-cooked broccoli.

I’ve been thinking I was too hasty to say no and that this is an opportunity for me to expand my skills and learn how to do it in the way I would like to. I’d like to learn how to write reviews a la the ones you see in a few of the best spots.* This doesn’t mean I think I can write reviews like that; this would be my aspiration though, to aim for those heights and not do piddling ones. I don’t want to write book reviews that are scathing; I don’t want to write ones that are so light-on the four paragraphs would blow off the page if you coughed on them. You know the ones where there are maybe three paragraphs of synopsis and then a line or two of what the reader made of the book, usually couched in terms of ‘it was a great read/fantastic/compelling’ with no information on why the reader enjoyed it. What did the writer do that made the book compelling? Was it plot? Were the characters especially nuanced and richly-drawn? What was the complexity of the structure and how did that work? Did the writer let some cliches slip in and how did that affect the reading? Was it an intellectual novel, did it have heart as well? Was it sentimental or did the writer keep a handle on emotion, keeping it just this side of full-blown heartbreak so that emotion is conveyed deftly and with skill.

If I can learn how to write reviews that are of a kind of learning/PD interest to other writers as well as readers, then I think that would be good. I would like to write longer pieces, reviews that are robust and meaty, and ones that are for me as a writer/reader, for an audience that is composed similarly. It would be like The Writer’s Room series of interviews**, in terms of length and depth. Not fluffy and surface-skimming. Not for commercial publication and not for the purpose of trying to ‘get in’ with the writers of the books and their publishers. One way of doing this would be to focus on books other than Australian. The community here is small and tight which is great, but it also means that you write a review on your blog, it is likely to be seen – this is a good and a bad thing. But I don’t want to exclude Australian fiction, there is great stuff going on and I love reading new Australian fiction, from both women and men. So. I will continue to ponder and muse. I’m going to start reading some how-to articles, start making a list of books I would like to review. Be considered about it. The thing is I always have responses to the books I read. I always have an opinion about everything. It’s about trying to find a form and a structure and an approach. This could even help me with my fiction.

UPDATE: I also want to include this comment thread on reviewing from Devoted Eclectic (Elizabeth Lhuede’s blog. Elizabeth founded the AWW). There are insightful comments about how people review/don’t review, how they feel about reading reviews from writers versus other readers. All good stuff.

* Sydney Review of Books; Australian Women Writers; Australian Book Review

** The Writer’s Room Interviews are seriously one of the best new things to come out of Australia recently. They are of such interest to me as a person who wants to learn.

2 thoughts on “The art of reviewing

  1. Interesting thoughts, Jenny, (though I barely managed to get to the end of your article, so distracted and mesmerised was I by your mention of the perfect mac-cheese – drool). I found Elizabeth’s piece on this thought-provoking. I ‘review’ on Goodreads, although it is misleading to call these reviews – they would more accurately be described as responses – brief and idiosyncratic and usually my first impression of a book, rather than the one I am left with after a few days/weeks of processing. I was recently invited to judge the best reviews of the AWW Challenge which gave me further opportunity to ponder reviewing. You can read my thoughts here, if you’re interested: http://australianwomenwriters.com/2013/03/08/scribe-book-giveaway-best-reviews-of-2012/

    1. Hi Annabel thanks for visiting and commenting. Yes it’s interesting to think of a response versus a review (whatever the line may be between them?) I am intending to study this and learn more about it. A John Updike list of pointers was recommended to me, I’m going to post about it now. Thanks for your link, I read it with interest!

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