Perspectives on book reviews

New York Times Book ReviewIn the latest New York Times Book Review James Parker, contributing editor at The Atlantic, and Anna Holmes, an editor at Fusion, discuss whether book reviews should be considered a public service or an art. Since I review books for the Historical Novel Society and, more recently, for the Washington Independent Review of Books, I thought I should pay attention to their perspectives.

James Parker suggests that book reviewing is a craft “because if the reviewer tries to be artistic, if he once abandons the secondary zone of criticism for the primary zone of creation, he’s sunk.” Good reviewing demands “an absence of prancing and posturing”.  A little later he says the reviewer needs to “describe, nimbly and briefly, the contents of the book. You need to offer a considered, but not ponderous, critique. And most trickily, you need somehow to solidify in the reader’s mind the aesthetic criteria by which the critique is being made.”

Anna Holmes says that book reviews “are more public service than art”. “They are work done for others’ enjoyment and edification … they are meant to inform an audience, not perform for one.” Readers expect a book review to answer two fairly simple questions: “(1) Is a book good? (2) Is a book good or interesting enough to justify buying it” [and the time required to read it]. “[T]he best things they [book reviewers] can do for readers is to be straightforward, unselfish, and to remember to get out of the way.”

Great advice for those of us who review books, but what do you readers think?


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available in paperback from Amazon and in e-book formats from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is available in paperback from Amazon (USCanada and elsewhere), and in e-book formats from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and on iTunes.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.

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16 Responses

  1. A review is certainly more informative than a mere star rating. I want it to tell me briefly the book’s subject, theme and character. But, in particular, I’d like to learn whether it’s of lasting value (Dickens, Brontë, Wendell Berry, Follett, Tolkein, etc.) or mere sensational rubbish (Dan Brown, etc.). That’s a big demand on the reviewer. The artistic merit of his/her prose is of secondary importance.

  2. A book review should not just tell me if the book is any good or if the reviewer liked it. Stars will do for that. I want to learn enough about the book to be able to tell if I will like it, and that isn’t a straight good/bad question.
    What I don’t want is to wade through paragraph after paragraph designed to show how clever/well read/intellectually superior the reviewer is.

    1. Well said, Lil! Both James Parker and Anna Holmes would agree with you on that. In terms of star ratings, when I look at sites like Goodreads, for example, I often check to see if there is wide disparity in ratings (the love it or hate it syndrome) and I find stars a quick measure of that. Of course, there’s also the matter of trusting the reviewer’s preferences. I’ve recently read a prize-winning novel and for the life of me, cannot understand why it was a winner!

  3. Mary, Angels at the Gate was submitted to the Washington Independent Review of Books (I did a review there myself). Don’t know what their system is, but if you decide to review it, maybe you could do a twofer. 🙂 T.K.


  4. I think book reviews are great if they take the form of a conversation. For example, on Amazon, reviewers can comment on one another’s reviews, and I personally enjoy reading those interactions. Of course that isn’t really possible with traditional formatted reviews in traditional media, but thought I’d throw that out there.

    1. What a great point, Jay. The book blogging community and sites like Goodreads enable this sort of conversation, one of the aspects that make social media a favourite zone for book readers.

  5. Most crafts, if finely honed, can approach art. A sturdy table can serve it’s purpose perfectly but another can be a thing of beauty as well as a place to set the dishes. (Craft vs Art is a discussion we painters often have.)

  6. When looking at reviews for books where a full range of stars have been given I conclude one cannot please all readers. Like Mary in an earlier comment I do wonder how certain books by best selling authors have won prizes other than by conditioning of judges to favour their peers. I now hesitate in recommending books I have enjoyed to friends and contacts as their view is often different, as is mine on the reverse situation. In order to find some consistency on my reviews I write my views against my five “Es” Also I understand less than 40% of books started are read to the end.

    Engrossing and interesting

    Enjoyable and entertaining

    Emotional feelings

    Educating – After reading Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy I wonder whether I should move this up a level to enriching.

    Easy reading

  7. While I agree with the authors that book reviews should be relatively succinct and “get out of the way,” I like it when they contain one or two intriguing details, especially if it’s something that can’t be fully explained until you’ve read the book. That way there’s a bit of mystery to draw you in.

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