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