Some Thoughts About Book Reviewing
October 09, 2007
Of interest to bloggers looking to improve their reviews is Anne Boles Levy's post on book-review forms, which is adapted from a talk that she gave to children's literature bloggers. (Her blog is Book Buds.) Coming from a background in journalism, Levy offers food for thought, including the following:
I spent only a brief time asking bloggers to consider not just readers who routinely visit their blogs, since writing for this immediate circle eventually becomes limiting and self-referential.
You unwittingly erect your own gates, admitting only those who "get" you and your stylistic quirks. To reach a broader audience, you have to imagine who they should be.
Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America, by Gail Pool, fits right in with what Anne Levy is saying. According to the jacket flap, "Faint Praise takes a hard and long-overdue look at the institution of book reviewing. Gail Pool, herself an accomplished reviewer and review editor, analyzes the inner workings of the troubled trade to show how it works—and why it so often fails to work well."
Faint Praise puts book reviews in context better than anything else I've read. Although it concerns reviews of books for adults, children's literature bloggers can take away plenty of useful information. Among the topics Pool covers are writing, editing, the effect of publishers' advertising (or lack of it), the effect of book reviews on sales, the reader-reviews at Amazon, editors' choice of books for review, sloppy language, and more.
Negative reviews come up in Faint Praise. Pool sees a real need for honest criticism, not just empty praise. In finding and writing about only what's good in a book or just describing its contents, a reviewer ends up "giving the impression that books are far better" than the critic actually thinks they are.
There are no shoulds or shouldn'ts in the blogosphere, of course. We can choose to write a full-fledged review or not. If I am reading Anne Levy's intent correctly, she is urging us bloggers to step it up a notch, and if we follow some of the ethical constructs set forth in Faint Praise, we ought to excuse ourselves from reviewing the books of our friends. Following copyright laws is a given.
As more and more arts criticism moves to the Web, we should keep thinking and talking about how book reviewing in general and blog reviewing in particular contribute to the cultural conversation.
Edited to add: Read Roger, the blog of The Horn Book editor-in-chief, briefly addresses which books get reviewed in that venerable publication; many libraries use the magazine in deciding which children's books to buy.
Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America
by Gail Pool
University of Missouri Press, 2007
Thanks so much for linking to me. It sounds like Ms. Pool and I have the same goals. I'm putting this book on my wish list, definitely.
In his recent article in Columbia Journalism Review called "Goodbye to All That," Steve Wasserman also raises the point that book reviews -- even those by print reviewers -- can be very lightweight and fail to rise above a mere book report.
I think there was broad consensus at the kidlitosphere conference that it shouldn't matter where the book review appears (print or online), even for all the uncertainty over what it should say.
Posted by: Anne | October 09, 2007 at 01:55 PM
Anne, I thought that Faint Praise did a really good job of explaining many aspects of the book review and the book-review section. Gail Pool is a member of the National Book Critics' Circle, but is somewhat critical of the group.
Posted by: Susan T. | October 09, 2007 at 05:37 PM
Wow. This is interesting - I know very well that I don't do books I don't like justice -- and I am hoping to learn to articulate honest criticism in print. I think Anne brings up such a good point...
Posted by: TadMack | October 10, 2007 at 08:01 AM
TadMack, Anne's writeup reminds me that I need to work on my reviews. It's easy for me to fall back on favorite phrases, but I always need to work on keeping the words fresh.
Posted by: Susan T. | October 10, 2007 at 01:12 PM
I can't believe it! I just found a review of Faint Praise floating around in my living room. It was reviewed in The Hartford Courant a while back, and I cut it out because I thought it sounded so good. And, well, like I said, it's floating around my living room.
Posted by: Gail | October 10, 2007 at 07:41 PM
Sorry. I made a mistake with the coding on that last post, which is why so much of it is in bold. If I can't do it right, I shouldn't do it at all.
Posted by: Gail | October 10, 2007 at 07:42 PM
Gail, it looked dramatic, but I think I fixed it. No worries. I cannot leave a comment on anyone else's blog without misspelling at least three words, often my own name, so you're ahead of me!
Posted by: Susan T. | October 10, 2007 at 09:52 PM
Thank you for this post on reviews. I'm off to purchase the book as I'd love to learn more about the review process.
Posted by: Kyra | October 15, 2007 at 07:01 AM
Kyra, I found it fascinating. I hope you enjoy it, too.
Posted by: Susan T. | October 15, 2007 at 11:21 AM