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.