I am breaking away from my regular list of books because I have been thinking quite a lot recently about what makes a great book review? There was an interesting, albeit somewhat controversial article in the February 2008 Prospect Magazine called Critical Condition by William Skidelsky which discusses the demise of the book review in both Britain and the United States. In the article, Skidelsky pointed out that one of the nails in the coffin of the professional reviewer was the dearth of bloggers who were all now setting themselves up as reviewers and who were essentially flooding the internet with reviews of varying quality. As I read, I realised that I too was one of those bloggers…
I love reading the book reviews in the Prospect magazine each month, and whenever I do buy the newspaper (which, I have to admit, is not often), the books section is generally the first section I go to. I pick up the Times Literary Supplement and The New Yorker whenever I can get them, and I generally find my list of ‘books to buy’ grows rapidly from these recommendations. However, I also love the reviews written at grass roots level – the Amazon reviews, the reviews on LibraryThing, individual book blogs. I think the book world is a much richer place because of this flood of new opinion, but, like Skidelsky, I wouldn’t like to see the traditional book review die.
This made me think about my own writing, and then made me start to wonder – what is it that makes a great book review? I tend to read quite quickly which I am sure means I miss things (but which has the concomitant benefit of enjoying the book for a whole raft of different reasons the next time I pick it up). In order to write the exquisite, measured reviews of Prospect, the first thing I thought was to slow down, or at least read with a notebook and pen beside me to take notes of things as I thought of them.
I think it also requires a good, rounded world view and being well-read definitely helps. Then there is the ability to craft words and opinion so that they are coherent, and make pertinent comparisons and constructive criticism.
It also presupposes that you know how to read a book. That may sound strange, because we all know how to read, but there is reading and there is reading thoroughly. I think the latter requires many different skills – an understanding of narrative voice, plot, characterisation, theme, context, genre etc. etc. Perhaps those of us who have spent the past 30 years of their lives with their nose in a book are subconsciously aware of these things, but I believe the art of a great book review is to take these things out of the subconscious and deliver them succinctly as part of the argument.
I am aware that in order to be a great book reviewer, I have a long way to go and a lot to learn but it is a journey I am glad to take. I think having a blog, rather than thinning the quality, in fact gives those of us who care enough a medium to practice and improve. And in the meantime, I will continue to study the reviews delivered to me in my favourite magazines and each time I do, I will pick up one tiny bit extra which will make my own review writing improve.
And in the meantime, I continue to ask the question. What is it that makes a great book review?