Saturday, December 10, 2005

The future of book reviews ...

Steve Clackson of Sand Storm has a very interesting post today about book reviewing. A key point: "Reviews should after all be geared to market the book not the reviewer or the magazine/newspaper..." I'm not sure reviews should be geared to marketing a book -- I think reviews function more along the lines of Consumer Reports -- but they definitely should not be geared to marketing the reviewer or the publication.One of the good consequences of space cuts is that reviewers have been forced to focus on the book under consideration and not other books by the same or differnt authors that the reviewer thinks are comparable: While the comparisons may be apt, they also seem to exist primarily for the purpose of displaying the reviewer's erudition.
Reviewing a book is not as easy as many people seem to think it is. Though reviewing involves criticism, it is not the same as criticism, the principal difference being that criticism presumes the reader has read the work or works being discussed, whereas reviewing presumes just the opposite. The most valuable thing any reviewer can do is bring to the public's attention a worthwhile bit of writing that might otherwise be overlooked.
I also think Steve is right that the future of reviewing is online -- and I think the nature of the Internet will eventually bring about a new form of review.
Feedback, please!


  1. I agree that the future of "book reviewing" is on-line. Book reviewing is pretty much a thankless task anyway, so on-line reviews make sense; and the space squeeze one finds in newspapers becomes irrelevant.

    I have stopped doing "book reviews" so much as "appreciations." What's the difference? The appreciation very clearly shows one reader confronting a book; it is more personal than a "book review," not so much about the book or the reviewer as about the encounter.

    The difference between review and criticism? I'd say the review pretty much limits itself to gauging whether the book achieved what it set out to achieve. Criticism, on the other hand, attempts to set the book in the larger context of whether what it achieves is worthwhile, and how it fits into the canon of similar works. I agree that criticism presumes its reader has read the book under discussion.

  2. Hi Tom:
    I like what you say about "appreciation." Given the space constraints, I am reluctant to use space running negative reviews. I also think you're right that appreciation of a book can only happen when the reader is fully engaged with the book on a personal level. I think people tend to forget that reading is interactive: The reason we so often dislike film adaptations of books we have enjoyed is that we imagined it all differently. The reader actuates the potency that is the book.

  3. Many years ago I read an insightful book, "An Aesthetics of Junk Fiction," in which the author, Thomas J. Roberts, made quite a useful distinction between a reviewer and a critic. I cannot recall the subtleties of it, but I do remember how he succinctly summed it up: "Critics try to make the world better; reviewers try to make the world happier." I have always thought Prof. Roberts was on to something, for many reasons. I do know personally it is tough to "sell" to editors an unsolicited review that is unfavorable.

  4. Now that's interesting, Willis. Now that I think about it, I don't recall getting many unsolicited pans of books. Another book editor, someone I very much respect, recently offered me free of charge a review of a book by a local author that would have been a pan. I decided to pass, precisely because it was a local author -- who had been trying very hard to get the book reviewed.
    (Interestingly, another local author thinks I went out of my way to publish a wire review critical of his latest. What he doesn't know -- and wouldn't care to hear, I am sure -- is that the reviewer I assigned the book to begged off writing a review because he didn't like the book. The wire review I ran was the only one that came to The Inquirer. I ran it only because my administrative betters wanted a review to run.)