Littera Scripta

The Art of Reviewing
by Marylaine Block

This will be the first year I will be able to attend the reception Library Journal gives at ALA every year for its reviewers, at which they present an award for the best reviewer.

I admit to being puzzled by that. How do you go about measuring the excellence of a reviewer, especially in a magazine like Library Journal, where the reviews are limited to 150 words? Have you any idea how little you can say in 150 words? That's about ten lines of type in a standard word processing program, and perhaps seven sentences. In that brief space, you need to tell people what the book is about, what it can be compared with, and who, if anyone, it will appeal to. There is no space left over in which to display your credentials, your knowledge of the genre, or your wit and personality.

The only way you can get to know reviewers is over time, as you read the books they recommend and see if you agree with them, and maybe even read some of the books they despised and see if you agree with these reviews also. But that requires remembering who wrote what reviews, over an extended period of time, and how likely is it that you even remember the name at the bottom of the review? I usually don't. In fact, I often don't even remember what magazine a review was in or why I wanted to read the book; all I've done is jot a note with the author's name and the title of the book.

In other magazines, book reviews are often lengthier and more discursive, which gives you more of a chance to get to know the reviewer, but does not necessarily make the reviews more useful. In LJ the point is to help librarians decide quickly whether or not to order a book. In the New York Review of Books, the books are just an excuse for a political discussion of the issues they raise, and the books themselves can kind of get lost in the process.

In the major book reviews -- New York Times and New York Review -- reviewers are celebrities, well-known authorities in their field, so there's no difficulty remembering who they are, but you can't necessarily trust them. They may have axes to grind, or conflicts of interest. Sometimes, sadly, perfectly innocent books are misrepresented and shredded by the author's deadliest enemies. Sometimes the assigned reviewers are contemptuous of the entire genre a writer works in and can't give an honest, let alone knowledgeable, assessment of the work at hand -- ever read a review of Stephen King in the New York Times Book Review?

What are the marks of an excellent book reviewer, then? I would suggest:

  • Fairness. Reviewers should give an accurate representation of the book even when they don't like it.

  • Integrity. Reviewers should admit their biases up front, and, where there are serious conflicts of interest (a book that challenges their own books and theories, for example), they should refrain from reviewing the book at all.

  • Concreteness. Reviewers need to give enough detail that readers know what they are getting, and should back up all opinions with specific details from the book.

  • Context. Reviewers should be familiar enough with the subject or the genre to compare the book to other works and assess its quality and/or accuracy.

  • An understanding of what the readers of that publication need to know about the books. There should be no unpleasant surprises when one reads the book -- librarians should find out from reviews, not outraged patrons, that books are raunchy, or grotesquely violent, or that their heroes could not speak at all if the F word hadn't been invented.

In the case of Library Journal, the reviewers that stand out are the genre reviewers, who are allotted several pages to review 10-15 titles at once -- Rex E. Klett for mysteries, Jackie Cassada for science fiction and fantasy, Melanie Duncan for Christian fiction, and Kristin Ramsdell, romance reviewer par excellence.

In this format, where you can compare reviews side by side, you can get a much clearer picture of the reviewers' standards -- what they like, what they hate, and why. The reviewers can comment on entire themes or sub-genres; Kristin Ramsdell, for example, has done round-ups of supernatural romances and Christian romances.

You can also find out whether they have a basic respect for the genre and the readers. Back in 1980, Library Journal's mystery reviewer was inexplicably contemptuous of novels by women. His favorite words for dismissing a book entirely, without having bothered to describe it, were "feminine" and "lady-like," though he never found any thud-and-blunder spy novels to be excessively "masculine" or "macho."

[When I sent a letter to LJ suggesting that this was a little inappropriate in a publication for a profession that is mostly female, they said, um, yes, maybe they needed to rethink that, and oh, by the way, would I like to write reviews for them? That's how I got into the business of reviewing.]

A reviewer has to take both the books and the genres seriously and examine them on their own merits. In fairness to the books they can't decide that ALL supernatural romances are silly and preposterous, or that ALL spy novels are crap. As Nelson Algren once said, 90% of everything is crap; reviewers are there to alert us to the ten percent that is downright excellent.

Truth can be spoken in any genre -- one of the books I return to over and over again is Dorothy Gilman's book of romantic suspense, The Tightrope Walker, which begins "Maybe everyone lives with terror every minute of every day and buries it, never stopping long enough to look. Or maybe it's just me...Sometimes I think we're all tightrope walkers suspended on a wire two thousand feet in the air, and so long as we never look down we're okay, but some of us lose momentum and look down for a second and are never quite the same again: we know."

Some of the finest books I know of were part of genres commonly despised by "serious" reviewers -- Orson Scott card's Ender's Game, Stephen King's The Dead Zone, Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle. It's the job of the reviewer to find such nuggets amid the dross and tell the world about them.

Reviewing goes hand in hand with all the other reader services we perform. If we do it right, what we are is matchmakers, who bring readers together with their perfect mates, the books that will speak to their minds and hearts.

Copyright, Marylaine Block, 2000.

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