Sometimes people come to me to ask for advice on how to write a book review. My internal response is “I don’t know,” and yet, I’ve written nearly 30 book reviews in the past twelve months. Instead of this unhelpful answer I tell them—remain open, put aside yourself as much as possible and listen. Naturally, as you begin crafting a review, the self and its tastes and preferences come into play, but part of review writing is simply surrendering. Surrendering our own inner voice to another’s voice which builds page by page, like a symphony around us. It is best to sit back and listen (with a pencil in hand of course to mark those passages you find striking). I also find that reading the book in one, or at most, two sittings increases your chances of understanding the book as a whole and getting a sense of its shape.
Already here, I’ve managed to impart some advice, and yet, again I feel like I don’t know how to write a review, in the same way I feel like I don’t know how to write a poem, or explain how to write a poem, even though I’ve written many hundreds of poems. Is there a formula for book reviewing? Certainly, and many book reviews follow this formula—the main idea or central theme of the text is explained, and then specific examples exhibiting how the theme is expressed are given, and finally the reviewer offers an assessment of how well the author’s intentions with the text have been met. Peppered in might be some background about the author, their previous works, and or the traditions the text is arising from. Do I do this in my own reviews? Often enough, though I admit I’ve never thought about trying to meet certain review expectations while writing a review, instead I try to let my reviews bubble up organically.
Doubt. I decided to write today about doubt in reviewing because doubt is crippling and prevalent. It is also a private experience; on the surface we struggle to seem reasonably confident, we repress a lot of our fears and doubts so we can function in a world that often would rather not know our current interior state of being. People turn to reviews for reading recommendations, to discover writers they’ve never heard of, and to deepen their engagement with a text that often has yet to be, or perhaps might never be, critically examined by literary theorists. They come with an expectation that the reviewer has enough knowledge of the genre to give an informed opinion or analysis. This is a reasonable expectation. Let me say, if you have doubt, like me, doubt that you can review a certain book, or that you know enough to review that book, you are in a good place, this doubt shows that you take the review seriously and want it to be as good as possible.
Not all reviews are created equal: some are glorified yelp reviews, some simply lackluster, some start off beautifully but then fall apart, some miss the point entirely, some are pompous and painful to digest, some are unbelievably brilliant, but most fall into the useful category. They help readers find books, and isn’t that what most reviewers ultimately want to do? Above all, I want my reviews to be useful, but hope they can be artful as well.
If you’re thinking about writing book reviews for the first time, I say please, yes, we need more reviews and reviewers in the literary community. If you are nervous, if you feel doubt, just keep working through it, there’s a way through. Sometimes I experience this doubt before I begin a review, I finish a book and think, but I don’t know what that was about! Then, I start putting words down on the page and suddenly I have more ideas than I can possibly use. Or sometimes I finish a review, and then I go to post it on my blog, Fork and Page, or I go to submit it to the journal I write reviews for and I think, what if I’m wrong about something, what if I didn’t understand the author’s intentions this time, perhaps I should just scrap it all together. But when I read the review again, I realize that it is the best I can do at this time, that my doubt is part of a larger struggle with self-confidence. I share this to help normalize these feelings, as ultimately reviewing itself has taught me so much about writing, and I hope that doubt does not hold other writers back from writing reviews.
I’ll end this post on reviewing with something Dan Beachy-Quick said on a panel about book reviewing: “it seems to me that the first art of real criticism is that of humility. Ideally, the critic is one who—as every true reader must—knows he does not know, and turns to a book to relieve that condition, not to prove his own intelligence, but to investigate the nature of his ignorance.”
He went on to say that the reviewer should not seek to judge, but seek to learn from a text. If you too have doubt and are fearful of reviewing, remember, you are doing this in order to learn. If you approach a book you intend to review with that kind of humility, and accept doubt as a part of the process of writing, then you will be able to write reviews that are more akin to the literature that you are engaging with.
If this post helps you in anyway get over your fear of writing reviews, please feel free to contact me. Contact info is in the bio below.
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Anita Olivia Koester is a poet, editor, and author of four chapbooks including Apples or Pomegranates. Her poetry is published or forthcoming in Pleiades, Mid-American Review, The Journal and elsewhere. She is the founder the book reviewing blog Fork & Page, and an editor at Green Mountains Review. Her website is- www.anitaoliviakoester.com and she tweets @anitaokoester